Last week, we heard from Hector, one of our undergraduates in French and Spanish. Hector spent his year abroad last year in Chile and Paris. You can read about his Chilean adventures here and here. When we left off last week, Hector was telling us about his stay in Paris, where he lived in five very different areas of the city. Today, we bring you the final instalment in his year abroad adventure.
My stay in Paris was nothing if not diverse: next stop, the 10th arrondissement* A.K.A. l’Entrepôt (‘The Warehouse’). Famous for containing the tranquil Canal Saint-Martin and two of the busiest train stations in Europe, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, I could feel the vibrations of the trains through the floor of the ground-floor studio apartment I was renting from an out-of-town colleague. There is a significant Hindu diaspora in the 10th, which celebrated the birth of Ganesha in magnificent style with the Ganesh Caturthi festival and street procession in August.
For the month of September, I rented an attic room in a coloc (‘flat-share’) on rue d’Aboukir, named after Napoleon’s victory over the Turks during the Egyptian Campaign. The 2nd arrondissement is one of the most typical of Haussmann’s 19th-century renovation of Paris, featuring wide boulevards, small parks, and neoclassical façades. My French-Portuguese housemate, an investment banker by profession, was sports mad and introduced me to the delights of the Top 14 French rugby union league, on the condition that I support his team which, being from the Gironde, was Bordeaux-Bègles.
There’s a reason Paris is the most popular tourist destination in the world, but it’s not the picture-postcard clichés of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, or Louvre. Rather, it is joie de vivre. Far from the stereotype of being blasé, Parisians know what matters: they eat well, drink well, and invest their time in worthwhile pleasures – be they higher or lower. Although I did experience a good number of quartiers, they were all rive droite (on the right bank of the river). Hopefully it won’t be long before the rive gauche (the left bank) is on the itinerary.
Last year on Adventures on the Bookshelf, we heard from one of our students, Hector, who was on his year abroad in Chile. Because he studies both French and Spanish, Hector split his year abroad between French- and Spanish-speaking countries. Over the next two weeks, Hector tells us more about the French part of his year abroad, spent in Paris…
It was not by design that I ended up living in five different Paris quartiers* over the summer of my third year abroad. But it gave me an insight into the City of Light which I wouldn’t otherwise have had, even with my excursions by day as a runner-people-watcher, and by night as a keen flâneur**. After a year teaching English in Chile for the Spanish half of my degree, the French half was immediately indispensable as I navigated my way from Charles de Gaulle airport to my first digs.
These were a single room on the fourth floor of a hostel on Boulevard Barbès, in the 18th of the 20 Parisian arrondissements***. My colleagues at the production company at which I was interning, HENRY TV on Place de la République, were somewhat shocked when I told them where I was living, since the area can be ‘chaud’**** come nightfall. Sure, I saw (and heard) a certain amount of that from my window on Friday evenings, but variety is the spice of life in the 18th: the African markets of the Goutte d’Or are cheek by jowl with such iconic sights as Montmartre, the Sacré Cœur, and the Moulin Rouge.
The African theme continued at my next residence: flat-sitting for friends in the Grandes-Carrières quarter, also in the northern 18th arrondissement, where there is a significant population of Senegalese origin. It was in a Senegalese restaurant when my parents were visiting that we enjoyed our best ever dining experience. Instead of just talking amongst ourselves, as is the norm when going out for an average meal in the UK, we were engaged in conversation and banter over delicious fare by other diners keen to share their culture with us, an unusual addition to the clientele.
As well as flat-sitting, my third pied à terre involved cat-sitting and plant-sitting for friends on holiday in Italy. The Parisian-born cats, Attila and Maurice, though initially somewhat sceptical of me on arrival – as were their human counterparts – warmed to me, and Attila even became quite affectionate despite his war-like name. The flat’s central location in Le Marais (‘The Marsh’) of the 3rd arrondissement, offers far more than its name might suggest. One of the most historic and traditionally aristocratic parts of Paris, the Marais now boasts vibrant LGBTQ+, Jewish, and East Asian communities, as well as plenty of trendy bars and some of the only remaining medieval architecture in the city.
Check back next week to hear about the rest of Hector’s Parisian adventures….
Explanation of vocabulary * quartier: Each arrondissement (see below) is split into quarters, or ‘quartiers’. There are also historical ‘quartiers’, which often do not map onto the administrative ‘quartiers’ – it all adds to the fun of navigating the city!
** flâneur: a stroller or walker. This comes from the verb ‘flâner’, meaning to stroll or saunter. The ‘flâneur’ became a famous figure in the nineteenth century, associated with people watching and urban exploration.
*** arrondissement: Paris is split into twenty administrative districts, called ‘arrondissements’
**** chaud: this can have several meanings in French, but in this context it means that the area can be a bit risky
Alannah Burns, a fourth-year Philosophy & German student at Lady Margaret Hall, loved teaching English at a secondary school in Berlin on her Year Abroad. Here she tells us why.
‘Too many choices of what to do on a Year Abroad?! But one obviously stands out…’
Nine months. One city. One school. One job. One language.
Today, it’s the game ‘werewolves’ in English for Grade 8 at 12pm.
Tomorrow, it’s one-to-one English speaking exam practice with Grade 10 at 2pm – this will be the first time they are learning what the exam is really like.
This morning it was going through the answers to the English class test from last week with Grade 8 step-by-step.
Tonight I’ll have to look up the lyrics to a Disney song and create a gap-fill exercise from it to help Grade 7 students practise listening to and understanding American accents.
For nine months I was paid to assist Grade 7, 8 and 10 English lessons at a ‘community school’ [Gemeinschaftsschule] in Berlin. I worked at the school for just over 12 hours a week (that’s right! Only 12 hours a week minimum and 20 hours a week maximum are required of you!). I did this as part of the British Council’s English Language Assistant programme. This is a very popular choice for those doing a Year Abroad, and I’m here to show you why.
I had never been to Berlin before I started my Year Abroad. I lived in nine different flats in eight (very different) areas of Berlin, for periods ranging from only five days, to four months straight (try doing the maths on that one!). I saw so much of the city this way, and experienced so many different kinds of city environments. I was paid 850 Euros a month for the teaching and (amazingly) never paid a cent more than 500 Euros for an entire flat to myself in Berlin with all bills included… Student life certainly does not get better than that! Teachers I worked with let me stay with them at the start of my time in Berlin, and helped me open a bank account, register my addresses, and find new places to live. The English Language Assistant placement with the British Council is also part of the Erasmus+ Scheme (which most universities are signed up to), meaning that you have access to extra funding and can continue to receive your maintenance loan from Student Finance as usual! I even still received funding, as I do every year, from Oxford University’s Moritz-Heyman Scholarship which is for students from backgrounds with a low household income. Put all these things together and see just how quickly my financial worries about a year of moving to a new country by myself were extinguished!
‘Living abroad for a year?! But how will I finance this?! How will I make friends?!’
Another scary part of spending a year in a new place and new country is how to get to know new people. The British Council run training sessions before your placement which are usually (but not always) in the country you will be spending your Year Abroad. This training lasts for a few days (for which they usually provide you with accommodation etc.) and during it you work closely with the other people from different universities who are also going to be teaching English at schools in the same city/region as you. This means that you know a circle of interesting people straight away who will be doing the same job, and build good friendships with them early-on while learning how to prepare lessons, work with teachers, teach different age groups etc.
Now to the job itself. The idea behind the British Council’s English Language Assistants programme is to foster an environment of joyful learning and incredible cultural exchange abroad, with a native English speaker supporting and encouraging people abroad to enjoy learning English and about English-speaking countries.
My experience was pretty unique: I never prepared my own off-curriculum lessons on British culture (or indeed anything), and never spoke German to the students… Here’s why: Most students at the school were from migrant or economically-disadvantaged backgrounds, with many students having diagnosed behavioural problems or learning difficulties. Some students had weak levels of German, let alone English. Not knowing I can speak German thus encouraged them to practice English with me – great for the students, but not for my spoken German… We followed the curriculum strictly as the students’ English levels generally were too weak to diverge from the textbook with exams/class tests always looming.
‘You don’t have to be crazy to work here. But it helps tremendously!’
As an enthusiastic native English speaker, I was told I had become a very valuable asset to this school. I led whole lessons, supported students in one-to-one speaking sessions, ran lunchtime English clubs, explained grammar, produced my own worksheets, and marked tests and homework. This experience was perfect for me as I hope to become an English teacher abroad in future. but my experience was certainly not typical! I know some people who worked at schools in Spain which asked them to teach science or other subjects in English, and others in different countries who were always preparing their own English lessons about British culture or their own background. The teaching experience is what you make of it and what you want it to be. There is always so much scope to talk with your school about what they want to get out of having a lively native English speaker in their classrooms, and what you want to learn from the experience and gain skills in. Every key skill you could ever need to show-off on your CV (such as leadership, teamwork, confidence, independence, reliability, punctuality, commitment, etc.) is what you can gain from this Year Abroad placement with the British Council. I cannot recommend it enough!
After leaving Berlin I gained a TEFL qualification through doing around 250 hours of volunteer English teaching to Polish children/teenagers in Warsaw and London, and German business professionals in Frankfurt. The English Language Assistant programme with the British Council certainly prepared me well for this.
You can find out more about the British Council programme here.
This post was written by Guo-Sheng Liu, a third-year student of Spanish and Portuguese at Lincoln College. Guosh is currently on their year abroad.
I had assumed a knowledge of Spanish would suffice when I embarked on a three-month long journey backpacking around Spain. I was wrong; I soon realised the importance of regional identities, languages and histories, all indispensable for understanding Spain’s complexities.
Though a minority language, Galician has been worth learning to me. For example, reading medieval Spanish and Portuguese was easier since modern Galician preserves some words now in disuse in its modern siblings. I also feel a connection to the language whenever I read lyric poetry beautifully composed in Galician-Portuguese (also known as Old Portuguese or Old Galician). On the contemporary end, the diversity of Galician dialects and the richness of vocabulary unique to Galician continue to surprise and sustain my interest.
While helping develop my thoughts on multilingualism in other places, the sociolinguistic situation in Galicia is, on its own, extremely fascinating. This includes the long, difficult struggle to preserve Galician as well as the great debates on orthography and normalisation (e.g. whether to embrace the hegemonic influence of Spanish) and on the nature of the language (is it the same language as Portuguese?). Galician is at a crucial junction as regards its survival; now is the perfect time to learn it.
Above all, perhaps, Galician is useful for understanding regional identity and history. Although Francoism (and its attendant repression of regional languages) ended decades ago, Spaniards today still grapple with comprehending the full extent of its socio-political legacy. A knowledge of Galician opens new ways to approach themes of collective memory and identity, struggles for freedoms, and current controversies over regional constitutions and politics.
Independence movements and some leftist groups exclusively use Galician for political reasons. And in my time spent in Santiago de Compostela, I have found locals most open to talking about their society when spoken to in Galician. Locals do not expect outsiders to speak their tongue; the pleasant surprise of your ability to do so translates into greater friendliness on their part and a deeper understanding of their society on yours. Galician culture and mindsets are certainly quite different from those of, say, Andalucia or Catalonia.
Compared to Catalan (let alone Basque!), Galician is even easier to learn if you already speak Spanish. This means you can start using the language sooner. The Xunta (regional government) also offers generous grants for its summer courses; I attended them twice for free, even receiving a stipend that covered accommodation.
Lastly, if themes of migration, feminism, independence, cultural identity / history, multiculturalism / multilingualism or ruralism sound appealing, Galician literature and film will be worth the effort of picking up the language.
Oxford has rich intellectual traditions, and Galician is no exception. Our university was the first one outside of Spain to offer Galician studies; language studies are open to all members of the university, while papers in its literature and linguistics are available to MML students.
More information on Galician at Oxford can be obtained at this webpage or by contacting the the current lectora, Alba Cid at firstname.lastname@example.org
In this post, current undergraduate Joseph Rattue, who studys at Somerville College, offers a candid and entertaining reflection on his year abroad while studying Russian from scratch.
Four years ago, I sat looking through some testimonials in Oxford Modern Languages leaflets at an open day, in awe of the list of amazing places students had been on their years abroad. With law internships in Berlin, banking placements in Zürich, and events management in various châteaux in the picturesque French countryside, it was a list of great promise. A list that would convince anyone of the excitement and glamour of a degree in French, Spanish, German or Italian at Oxford. A list from which the location of the year abroad for Beginners’ Russian was markedly and suspiciously absent. After some digging around on the internet through the Russian sub-faculty’s web page, I found the city where second-year Russian Ab Initio (from scratch) students go for their year abroad, and didn’t think much of it in the face of the cosmopolitan metropoles I’d read about earlier that day. Today I have a photo plate of it on the wall above my bed.
Yaroslavl. Probably not the first word that comes to mind when you think of a place to spend your year abroad. Unknown to most people outside Russia, it sits modestly 272.3 km north-east of Moscow, and a trying 13-hour overnight train ride south-east of St. Petersburg. If I thought the scale of these distances was daunting before I arrived at the airport “in” (45.8 km south of) Moscow, it got even more extreme when I asked the minibus driver when we would reach the train station to go to Yaroslavl, only to discover that Yaroslavl was considered “next to Moscow,” as the 6-hour bus ride ensued. After the 5am start in the UK, it would be fair to say we all slept pretty well that night once we’d arrived at our home stay hosts’ flats.
For anyone wondering why I haven’t mentioned what we were actually doing there, fear not. All in good time. First, though, there are some things to do with the structure of the Russian Ab Initio Course which need some explaining. If you read the opening of this post and were a bit puzzled about why I talked about second-years going abroad, you were right to pick up on this. Nearly all Modern Languages degrees at Oxford are arranged for students to go abroad in their third year, unless the degree includes Beginners’ Arabic or Beginners’ Russian, in which case the second year is the year abroad. If you do Beginners’ Russian, you spend the whole of the first year doing almost exclusively language work, with a 1-hour poetry reading class every week in the second term designed mainly to help with the resonance of words, and to give the basic outline of some literary movements in Russia. In their second year, all the Oxford Russian Ab Initio students go to Yaroslavl and do a language development programme designed specifically for them by Yaroslavl State University, making it easier to tackle Final Honours texts in Russian in the third and fourth years. Yes, this can have its downsides; you are away when your friends are back home in Oxford, and your linguist friends are away in third year when you come back. But this does not exactly spell the end for your social life. Without sounding too cheesy, it would not be an exaggeration to say that my social experiences on my year abroad were some of the best I’ve ever had. I went to a new place, discovered a new culture, and made new friends, many of whom will be in Oxford with me this coming year and mean a lot to me.
It’s not often that you go to a monastery with a bear called Masha inside it, or a café where tens of cats live, or a museum with a whole room dedicated to different kinds of traditional irons which can also be musical instruments. Nor is it every day that you sing traditional Russian folk songs and drink mulled wine with your teachers to celebrate “Old New Year” in mid-January because Russia used the old Julian calendar until February 1918. It is these sorts of things that have made my year abroad not only so much fun, but so meaningful and fulfilling. Being in a class with the other Oxford students gave me an immediate group of close friends, and together we discovered Russia. Whether it was watching Yaroslavl Lokomotiv play ice hockey with our Russian friends, staying up to see the sun rise over the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, or belting out Russian pop songs about new year at 1am, the year could hardly have been more full of shared, new experiences that brought us closer to each other and to Russian culture. The other people who made all this possible were our hosts, or “babs” (short for “babushka,” the Russian for “grandma”), who lived with us, fed us, and shared their stories, ideas and lives with us. When I met my bab, Emma, at the start of the year, I could hardly understand a sentence she said. By the end, I was interpreting for her as she told my parents all about her family, past and present, and which English writers she liked reading. I visited Yaroslavl again this summer, 4 months after the end of my year abroad in March, and left a box of chocolates for my friend to give to Emma when she got back from her holiday. Two days ago Emma got those chocolates, and said hi.
All in all, it has been an unforgettable year, one full of discovery, new people, and both academic and personal growth. What felt like a very foreign country now feels like a second home to me. To that end, the Yaroslavl year abroad is the epitome of what a year abroad should be.
This post was written by Hector Stinton, a third-year Spanish & French student at Keble College.
As an undergraduate reading French and Spanish, I have chosen to spend my year abroad working in Santiago de Chile (August 2017 – June 2018) and Paris (July – September 2018) as a British Council English teacher and Assistant Film Producer, respectively. In the summer before starting the Spanish half of my year, I set myself three main objectives: to enhance my understanding of Hispanic culture, to improve my Spanish, and to challenge myself professionally.
Being embedded in life and work in Chile has given me great insight into Latin culture. For example, in England, flying or wearing our flag is uncommon and has nationalistic associations, even on St George’s Day; whereas in Chile, La Estrella solitaria is seen far more frequently, especially on Independence Day in September. Dig a little deeper, however, and you find that it is still a legal obligation, though rarely enforced, to fly a flag from every house or tower block – a hangover in the constitution written by Pinochet, demonstrating his pervasive legacy. At the other end of the spectrum, and typifying the wry sense of humour, the beverage of choice – a litre of sweet fermented wine with pineapple ice-cream – is called a terremoto (‘earthquake’), despite the fact that tremors regularly raze towns and villages, and have left the capital without any pre-modern architecture.
It is said that if you can speak Castilian in Chile, you can speak it anywhere in the world, since Chilean Spanish has a fearsome reputation for its thick accent, fast delivery, and plethora of peculiar idioms and neologisms, known as chilenismos. Separated from Peru and Bolivia by the Atacama Desert to the north, from Argentina by the Andes to the east, and surrounded by ocean to the south and west, Chile’s geography has seen its language develop hermetically. Even when Chile became more accessible, wars with her neighbours, and continuing mutual suspicion, have made the distinct speech a point of national pride. For this reason, Chilean vocabulary has been particularly enriched by its immigrant and native communities: ya (‘yeah’) from the German ja, ¿cachai? (‘you know?’) from the English ‘to catch one’s drift’, cancha (‘field’) from the Quechua kancha. The grammar, too, prefers the Italian ai or ei ending to the Iberian as or es when using the informal tu form in the present tense, and rejects completely the peninsular vosotros ‘you plural’. Acquiring all these subtleties, and many more besides, has made me a more complete linguist.
Professionally, working at the biggest language school in Santiago, the Instituto Chileno-Británico de Cultura, has presented its own set of challenges. On Friday evenings, I teach an advanced one-on-one student who happens to be the philosophy chair at the top university, and is preparing to deliver a series of lectures at Yale. A few hours later, on Saturday mornings, I go from feeling more like a tutorial student with the aforementioned academic, to helping a class of six-year-old girls colour and annotate big A3 sheets with titles like ‘My Zoo’ and ‘My Favourite Food’. ‘Variety’ is certainly the watchword at the ICBC, because every day I engage with and adapt to a huge range of different ages, backgrounds and abilities.
Thus far, I would go as far as to say I’m meeting or exceeding the objectives I set myself at the beginning of the year, thanks to an opportunity in Chile made possible by the British Council and Instituto Británico. Now I might even have time for some of my secondary objectives: learning to dance, learning to cook, and learning Portuguese…
This post was written by Emma Gilpin, a third-year French and German student at Oriel College.
One of the most important elements of a modern languages degree is the year abroad. It’s not something you are generally thinking about when you’re first applying to university and it’s all so far into the future but it certainly comes around quickly! I am a third-year student of French and German at Oriel and I am currently on my year abroad, working as a languages assistant in Cologne, Germany.
Lots of people choose to be languages assistants when they are planning their year abroad because, honestly, it’s such a great option! There are lots of possibilities available when you start planning how you want to spend the third year of your course, especially if you are studying two languages. I personally thought it would be great to be a languages assistant in Germany for 6 months as it would leave me plenty of time to spend in France later in the year (writing lots of CVs and job applications turned out to be a great way to keep up with my French!) I also wanted to spend a little more time in Germany as I have always found German a bit more difficult than French, but I have improved lots and am now hoping I still remember how to speak French!
The great thing about the year abroad is that you have so much freedom to choose what you want to do, whether you want to be studying or working, as well as the freedom to live where you want to, travel, meet new people and learn new skills. At times, it can be hard being away from home but there is plenty to keep me busy. Working in a school is a lot of fun and I often feel like I am learning as much from the students as they are learning from me! Not having to work on weekends is also a revelation after 2 years studying at Oxford so I have enjoyed exploring Cologne, travelling to new places and making sure never to miss out on opportunities to try new food (it’s all part of the cultural experience).
I feel really grateful to have this opportunity as part of my degree (how cool is it that chatting to my flatmates basically counts as work here?) and have not only learned lots of German but other skills too, like how to find a flat to live in for 6 months, how to navigate the tram system in a foreign country and how to teach a class of rowdy year 8s about a topic I’ve never read about- I’m hoping finals will be a breeze after that!
This post was written by Martha MacLaren, a fourth-year German and History student at Somerville College.
Walking down Broad Street at the weekend, I was hit by the familiar smell of German sausages and mulled wine, and the hubbub of the Oxford Christmas market brought back memories from my year abroad. In Salzburg, a beautiful cathedral city on the edge of the Alps, I lived right on the central square where the Christkindlmarkt was held every year – that smell wafted through my window whenever I dared to open it to the below-freezing temperatures in frosty December!
Christkindlmarkt is the Austrian equivalent of the German Weihnachtsmarkt. The latter translates as Christmas market, but the Austrian reflects the tradition of the Christ Child who visits children with presents on 6th December. Christ means Christ, and Kindl is the diminutive of Kind (child) – so ‘little-Christ-child market’. In Austria, an “l” is often used instead of a German “chen” – “Mädel” instead of “Mädchen”, for example. You can see why it’s easier to yodel in Austrian German!
Sausages such as Bratwurst and Käsewurst (sausage with cheese inside – delicious) were sold for about half of the £6 you’d pay for them here – and not in a hot dog bun, but with a Semmel, a bread roll. They’d probably be served with Sauerkraut und Senf (pickled cabbage and mustard), which is as disgusting as it sounds! Glühwein (mulled wine) was a favourite, and you needed it to warm your hands, especially after ice skating on the outdoor rink on Mozartplatz. Kaiserschmarrn, thick and fluffy torn up pancakes, were cooked on a griddle and served with Apfelmus (apple sauce) or Zwetschkenröster (stewed plums). There’s another word – Zwetschke – that’s different from the German (Pflaume).
Beautiful decorations, organic chocolate and fancy soaps abounded, alongside the classic Mozart-themed touristy gifts. Salzburg is very proud of its most famous cultural export! The tasteful lights and Christmas tree topped off the scene, with the cathedral and fortress forming the backdrop. I can’t wait to go back, but this year I’ll content myself with Oxford’s buzzing market as term comes to an end.
by Hector Stinton, a third-year undergraduate in French and Spanish at Keble College
Chilean Spanish is the most idiosyncratic Hispanic variant, and it’s partly why I applied to work as a teacher in Santiago for my year abroad. Its earliest phonetic influence was from Andalusian conquistadores, who brought to America yeísmo (/y/ and /ll/ pronounced the same) and seseo (soft /c/ and /z/ pronounced as /s/, itself unpronounced word-finally), but it developed into a more distinctive accent with the conversion of /j/ into aspirate /h/ and the elision of /d/ in words like ciudad. Chile’s geo-political isolation made its patois evolve rapidly and hermetically: separated from its neighbours by the Andes and the Atacama until the 19th century, and with relations soured by conflict and suspicion since then, Chileanese became a point of national pride.
As in other Latin countries, the diminutive –ito/a is used to express affection and diminish the urgency, directness or importance of something, e.g. making something annoying seem more pleasant, and the voseo (use of vos as a second person singular pronoun instead of tuteo) forms the bottom two of the four grades of formality, below tú and usted. Interestingly, however, among friends, Chileans prefer the Italianate –ai or –ei ending to the Iberian –as or –es when using tú in the present tense. More unusual still is the replacement of nuestro ‘our’ with de nosotros, and the rejection of vosotros in favour of ustedes for ‘you plural’.
But above all, Chilean-speak is known for its plethora of peculiar idioms and neologisms, known as chilenismos; look in any Spanish dictionary, and you will see they predominate over all other vernaculars. There are three broad categories: Argentine / Rioplatense / Lunfardo (argot from Buenos Aires and Montevideo) terms carrying either covert prestige or criminal Coa undertones (hacer perro muerto ((literally, ‘to do a dead dog’)) – ‘to dine and dash’); Mapudungun / Quechua loanwords (copihue – Chile’s national flower, huaso – ‘cowboy’); and French / (Swiss-)German / English / Croat loanwords (confort – ‘loo paper’, lumpen – ‘lower class’, cachar – ‘to catch one’s drift’, corbata – ‘tie’). Together, they further enrich the Chilean dialect, which never fails to surprise and delight.
hacer perro muerto – to dine and dash
huaso – cowboy
confort – loo paper
cachar – to catch one’s drift
Montmartre is a legendary part of Paris – a maze of twisting cobbled streets, trees, squares, that leaves you breathless, and not just from the steep climb.
Tucked away discreetly in a side street behind the Sacré-Coeur, the Musée de Montmartre keeps the memory of the area’s heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries alive. Set in beautiful gardens overlooking the Montmartre vineyards, the museum’s collections are displayed in the house of artist Suzanne Valadon and her son Maurice Utrillo, a building which played host to the most dynamic and innovative artists, painters, and composers of the day. A zinc-topped bar counter, a battered piano with yellowed keys, photographs, paintings, and sketches all conjure up a time when Montmartre was the centre of an extraordinary creative ferment, and a lodestone for artists from across Europe, who would arrive with no money and no French, confident of a generous Montmartrean welcome, with kindness and credit freely given.
Alongside the Moulin Rouge, two iconic cabarets loom large in the museum’s collections: the Lapin Agile and the Chat Noir. Lithe, mischievous, and living by their wits, the nimble rabbit and black cat which form the Montmartre menagerie perfectly encapsulate the spirit of the area. Opened in 1855, the Lapin Agile still offers a nightly dinner and cabaret show 160 years later, although the atmosphere is somewhat different. In the late 19th century, you would step into a spicy fug of tobacco smoke and sweat, the aniseed burn of absinthe hitting the back of your throat. Ears ringing with the plaintive wheeze and rasp of an accordion, and the sound of bawdy, full-throated laughter, you would take a seat at one of the sticky tables, scored with the initials of your predecessors. You never knew who you’d be rubbing shoulders with: wealthy Parisians slumming it for a night, artists’ models, dancers, political radicals, ladies of the night, local eccentrics of every stripe, penniless poets with inkstained fingers or hungry artists still spattered with paint, come from unheated attics and studios to warm themselves with drink and friendship, and to listen to the chansons réalistes of poets such as Aristide Bruant. As their name suggests, these were songs which told the truth about Paris and the seamy underbelly of its nightlife, in a distinctive slang. They were tales of poverty, prostitution, violence, heartbreak, hopeless love, but also bawdy, innuendo-laden or just downright filthy sing-a-longs. They’re emblematic of gouaille – a uniquely Parisian trait, a blend of bolshy straight-talking, cheek, and bravado, with an underlying hint of vulnerability. It’s tempting to sanitize or romanticize the sordid reality of life in Montmartre, but these songs express the extremes of existence there – all human emotions and situations, from joy to misery, expressed with equal intensity.
Montmartre has retained its strong sense of identity: its inhabitants are still defiant outsiders and unrepentant eccentrics, helping each other out and fighting to preserve their traditions. Looking down from the gardens of the museum and imagining summer evenings heavy with the smell of ripening grapes and raucous with the din of the Lapin Agile, it’s easy to fool yourself into hearing the clack and swoosh of the windmills which used to dot the Montmartre hillside – and feeling the breeze of anarchy.
And if you’re interested…
… here’s a flavour of Montmartre’s cultural output during its heyday.
With their exuberant colours, effervescent energy, and startling shapes, these are definitely worth a look:
A larger than life figure, Guillaume Apollinaire was an experimental poet and the father of Surrealism. In his collections Alcools (1913) and Calligrammes (1918), he uses words which are simple individually, but puts them together in surprising combinations. He plays with the layout of his poems on the page to form verbal flowers or fireworks.
A particular favourite of mine is Le Pont Mirabeau (here in the original French, with English translations, and musical French versions).
‘Milord’ – In this rambunctious number, Edith Piaf, the ‘Sparrow of Montmartre’, encourages a broken-hearted lover to drink and dance away his sorrows:
‘Rose Blanche (Rue St Vincent)’ – an iconic poet from the Lapin Agile, Aristide Bruant here sets his pen to tell of a woman’s tragic end at the hands of her gangster lover, on the Rue St Vincent in Montmartre (here in a rendition by variety star Yves Montand)
A modern take on the area, but which has an unmistakeably quirky Montmartrean charm. The director Jean-Pierre Jeunet lives in Montmartre and is a familiar face in its various restaurants and bars.
The Musée de Montmartre can be found at: 12 rue Cortot, 75018 Paris
I’m a 3rd year French student at St John’s, currently on an Erasmus study exchange at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. I have been known to give the odd rendition of a chanson réaliste on my accordion.
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