By Anna Pook

Image by Pamela Shandel

 

An attempt at exhausting a place; 43 years on. Anna Pook sits down in Paris and watches the megacity using the observation techniques of Oulipo writer Georges Perec.

 

In mid-October 1974, Georges Perec began work on An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. For several days he sat in cafes and bars around Saint Sulpice and observed the minutiae of everyday life: buses, people, cars, pigeons, plastic bags. His aim was to highlight the things that are often overlooked; the result is a portrait of Paris that allows the city to speak for itself.

 

Forty-three years later, I set out to document a different location using the same premise as Perec, paying attention to what he referred to as the infra-ordinary.

 

Author’s notes:

 

Le Capucin is a café situated on the corner of place de la Chapelle and rue Marx Dormoy. The entrance to La Chapelle metro station is 200 feet away at the junction of boulevard de la Chapelle, rue Faubourg Saint-Denis, rue Marx Dormoy and rue Louis Blanc. People, trains, buses and taxis converge on the crossroads of La Chapelle. There is a constant flow of traffic, pedestrian and vehicular. Frequent peaks in pollution have resulted in cars registered before 2006 being banned from circulating within the city’s periphery. The population of the 18th arrondissement has increased substantially with a recent influx of refugees who have been sleeping in makeshift camps along Canal Saint Martin and under the arches of the viaduct at Stalingrad metro. The vast majority of these refugees are young men.

 

DATE: 16 JANUARY 2017

TIME: 11:07 AM

LOCATION: LE CAPUCIN (CAFÉ)

WEATHER: BLUE SKY, SUNSHINE, BITING COLD

 

Outline of an inventory of some strictly visible things:

 

  • Letters of the alphabet, words: ‘Toilettes 0.50 cents. Merci’ typed on a laminated sign taped to a door in the café, COLUCHE in red capitals on a black and white poster of the famous French clown wearing a red nose, ‘ORIGINE VIANDES, France, Pays Bas’, (MEAT ORIGIN, France, Holland) written in faded white chalk on a small rectangular chalkboard in the corner of the café, ‘PROPRETE’ (CLEANLINESS) printed in black capital letters on clear plastic bin bags opposite the café on Place de la Chapelle– one bag is already full and tied shut, the other almost empty, ‘le système est bad,’ (the system is bad) tagged on the side of a Ford transit van in plum-coloured paint, ‘VILLE PROPRE – anti graffiti’ (CLEAN CITY – anti graffiti) on the side of a graffiti-covered truck.

 

  • Conventional symbols: four sets of traffic lights, two no entry signs, a bus lane, a cycle lane, no parking, no stopping, a picture of a car being towed away by a lorry.

 

  • Numbers: 35 (a bus heading in the direction of Aubervilliers), 65 (a bus heading in the direction of Gare de l’Est, 84 stitched in white thread onto a blue parka, Tirage No: 107 (Draw No: 107) on the TV screen in the café announcing the latest results of the lottery.

 

  • Fleeting slogans: ‘AB, le propreté, c’est notre métier’ – (AB, cleanliness is our business.) ‘Grace à vous + 3000 tonnes’ – (Thanks to you, + 3000 tons) on the side of a refuse truck. ‘La La Land, le meilleur film de l’année’ (La La Land, the best film of the year) on the side of a bus, ‘KOTRA, fresh and frozen logistics’ printed on the flank of a lorry, ‘systèmes de fenêtres, portes et façades,’ (window systems, doors et facades) on another.

 

  • Ground: dark grey tarmac littered with cigarette butts, scraps of paper and broken shards of bottle-green glass.

 

  • Stone: the curb, the buildings, the viaduct that supports the overhead tracks of the metro.

 

Trajectories

 

The 35 goes to Le Mairie d’Auberbvilliers

The 65 goes to Gare de Lyon

A refuse truck parks on the crossroads just opposite the café then heads down rue Marx Dormoy.

 

Colours

 

Green man

Pink plastic bag

Two pairs of camouflage trousers

 

The digital display board that announces messages from the Mairie (Town Hall) is blank.

 

In front of the café a young street vendor extracts a black bundle from a Carrefour Supermarket shopping bag and places it beside him on the pavement. He presses the shopping bag flat against his body and then folds it in half. Again and again he folds the shopping bag in half until the stiff fabric is squashed into a compact square. Then he rolls it up and tucks it into the back pocket of his jeans. He kneels down and spreads his wares out on the black blanket – belts, phone covers, winter hats in grey and black. He looks left, then right, then left again.

 

The 302 goes left down boulevard de la Chapelle.

 

The 35 goes down rue Faubourg Saint-Denis.

 

In the blink of an eye, the street vendor gathers up his goods and shoves them back into the Carrefour shopping bag.

 

A taxi with its red light on drives down rue Marx Dormoy.

 

The street vendor has gone.

 

The 302 turns right down boulevard de la Chapelle.

 

The metro crosses right over the viaduct.

 

The street vendor has returned. He extracts the black bundle from the Carrefour Supermarket shopping bag and places it beside him on the pavement. He presses the shopping bag flat against his body and then folds it in half. Again and again he folds the shopping bag in half until the stiff fabric is squashed into a compact square. Then he rolls it up and tucks it into the back pocket of his jeans. He kneels down and spreads his wares out on the black blanket. He looks left, then right, then left again.

 

DATE: 24 JANUARY 2017

TIME: 1:18 PM

LOCATION: LE CAPUCIN (CAFÉ)

WEATHER: PALE GREY SKY, OPAQUE.

 

The 302 goes to La Courneuve.

 

The café owner smokes a cigarette on the terrace outside. He’s wearing a heavy wool jumper. A royal blue apron is tied around his waist.

 

‘Triez ou vous vivez’ (Sort where you live) is written on the side of a refuse truck going down rue Marx Dormoy.

 

Young men in black puffa jackets walk towards the metro station, their hoods up.

 

Lilac and fuchsia shalwar kameez poke out from under heavy black coats. Thick-soled trainers on the women’s feet.

 

A bin bag full of bread rolls is slung over the shoulder of a man in a black parka crossing place de la Chapelle.

 

A refuse truck goes up rue Marx Dormoy. ‘Triez sans vous tromper’ (Sort without error).

 

An elderly man in a beige trench coat limps along the road, a rolled up newspaper in his right hand, his brown satchel worn diagonally across his chest.

 

A woman in head-to-toe red stands out amongst a group of young men all wearing grey, black, navy blue and brown that are heading towards the metro.

 

The street vendor has a customer. Both men are dressed in shiny black jackets and beanie hats. The street vendor’s wares are spread out before him on the black blanket – belts, phone covers, winter hats in grey and black.

 

A blind man crosses the street, his cane sweeping left and right. His bomber jacket is bottle-green.

 

The street vendor takes a twenty-euro note from his only customer and hands him back a tenner.

 

The customer leaves.

 

The metro crosses left over the viaduct.

 

The metro crosses right over the viaduct.

 

Cars: black, grey, black, black, black, grey, black, white, black.

 

The 65 goes to Porte de la Chapelle.

 

A green truck, a white van.

 

‘MAIRIE DE PARIS. ACCUEIL ET SURVEILLANCE’ (Paris Town Hall. Reception and surveillance) on the backs of two men in navy uniform walking past the café and down Place de la Chapelle and away from the crowds.

 

The 35 goes to Aubervilliers.

 

A sea of people walk in the direction of the metro station: man, woman, man, man, man, man, woman, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, woman, woman, woman, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man.

 

A father pulls his daughter along on his shopping trolley in the opposite direction. White bobble hat, red coat, pink boots.

 

The next wave of people approach the metro, shoulders hunched, moving quickly towards the underground: man, man, man, man, man, man, woman, man, man, man, woman, woman, man, woman, man, man, man, man, man, woman, man, man, man, man, man, woman, woman, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, woman, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, woman, man, man, man, man.

 

The 65 goes to Porte de la Chapelle.

 

Ground: Spots of chewing gum on the pavement, cigarette butts, a lone pigeon hovering around the pedestrian crossing.

 

The metro crosses right over the viaduct.

 

The 302 goes up Rue Marx Dormoy. ‘Je monte, Je valide’ (I board, I validate)

 

A film poster for ‘The Boyfriend’ on the side of a bus. James Franco is smiling.

 

The metro crosses left over the viaduct.

 

The metro crosses right over the viaduct.

 

Cars: white, grey, black, occasionally red.

 

The metro crosses left over the viaduct.

 

Two yellow postal vans turn left down rue de Jessaint.

 

A yellow poster for a play is displayed on Place de la Chapelle. ‘C’est encore mieux l’apres midi’ (It’s even better in the afternoon). A red stiletto, a tiny man dangling from its heel.

 

Flashing yellow lights of a worksite. They are digging up the road under the overhead tracks of the metro.

 

Man, man, man, woman, man, man, woman, woman, woman, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, woman, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, woman, man.

 

Stop-clock. One minute: 53 people go past the window

17 vehicles

The metro crosses left over the viaduct.

The 65 goes to Porte de la Chapelle.

 

Yellow: a fluorescent vest tied to a bicycle frame chained to a railing by the side of the road. Fluorescent yellow gloves of the cyclist otherwise in black, two canary-yellow postal vans, the poster advertising the play, the flashing lights of the refuse truck and the worksite.

 

Four heavily armed CRS officers (French national police guards) stand on the corner of boulevard de la Chapelle and rue Marx Dormoy. One stands with his arms crossed. He is a human bipod, his legs wide apart.

 

14: 17. Time to leave.

 

DATE: 25 JANUARY 2017

TIME: 2.18 PM

LOCATION: LE CAPUCIN (CAFÉ)

WEATHER: GREY SKY, FREEZING TEMPERATURES.

 

‘Your friend not here today?’ says the cafe owner. He is wearing the same thing as yesterday, a thick woolly jumper in grey and navy stripes and a royal blue apron tied around his waist.  He has walked the length of the counter to greet me.

 

‘No,’ I reply. ‘Not today.’ I am usually accompanied by my friend, Rosemary, who lives a stone’s throw away. Despite our efforts to be inconspicuous, it is difficult to do so in a café frequented mostly by men.

 

I order a hot chocolate bien chaud and sit down in my usual spot facing boulevard de la Chapelle, the crossroads and the entrance to the metro.

 

The 302 turns right down boulevard de la Chapelle.

 

A white van with blue flashing lights but no siren has parked up by the newspaper kiosk on rue Marx Dormoy, thirty feet in front of the café.

 

The 35 goes to La Mairie d’Aubervilliers.

 

A black van with tinted windows turns left down rue de Jessaint. The sliding door is open, the grey seats inside just visible.

 

A man turns left down Place de la Chapelle, a blue plastic crate full of bread rolls balanced on his shoulder, two plastic bags full of loaves in his right hand. I cannot see his face.

 

An elderly man crosses Place de la Chapelle in short strides, his hands grasping a black umbrella behind his back.

 

A man is sitting at the table next to me. He sees me writing.

 

‘Are you a writer?’ he asks.

 

‘Yes,’ I reply.

 

‘Have you ever been published?’

 

‘Just a short story in England, and I helped edit an anthology that was published in the US.’

 

‘That’s great.’

 

‘But I’m a teacher, really. I’ve been a teacher for fifteen years.’

 

‘Me too. I’m a maths professor. We have the same culture,’ he says, gesturing to the notes, pens and empty coffee cups covering our tables. ‘The same…’

 

‘Spirit?’ I venture.

 

‘The same spirit, yes. Literature, maths. It’s the same thing.’ He pulls out a school textbook from his briefcase. It has an orange cover with ‘Year 5’ written in the top left hand corner.

 

‘What age are Year 5?’ I ask.

 

‘Year 5? They’re 13,’ he says.

 

‘Oh. I always mix them up. In England, year 5’s are only 9 years old.’

 

‘In Africa, in the country I grew up in, the numbers increase: 7, 8, 9, 10… In France, they decrease. It’s the other way round.’

 

He opens the front page of his textbook and points to the list of authors ‘That’s me,’ he says, tapping his name with his index finger before leafing through the book and placing it back on the table. ‘I am proud,’ he says in English, putting his hand on his heart, ‘very proud.’ He takes another textbook out of his briefcase. This one is pink. ‘Year 4’ is written in the top left hand corner.

 

‘Who are your favourite authors?’ I ask.

 

‘Victor Hugo, Zola, Steinbeck. East of Eden. The classics. Contemporary fiction too. Wole Soyinka. Do you know him? He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize. I read his book before he won the prize.’ He emphasises before.

 

‘What was the name of his book?’ 

 

‘AKE,’ he says, accentuating each letter. ‘The Years of Childhood.’

 

I jot down the name of the book in my notepad.

 

‘He’s African, from Nigeria.’

 

Our conversation is interrupted by the maths professor’s mobile phone which has started to ring.

 

‘I’m going to write to you,’ he says when he’s finished advising his friend on the best places to park in the area. ‘I don’t have a business card but I’ll give you my contact details.’ He takes an A4 notebook out of his briefcase and tears off a page. The squared paper reminds me of the maths books I used in school. He writes his name, mobile number and email address.

 

‘And if you’d like to,’ he says ripping out another page from his notebook and giving it to me. I write down my name and my email address and hand it back to him. His friend arrives. The maths professor introduces us. ‘She’s a writer,’ he says.

 

My mobile phone rings. It’s my friend Isabelle phoning from the south of France. The maths professor orders a coffee for his friend. The waiter brings it to the table and the tiny cup perches precariously on the table’s edge, next to the folders, papers and textbooks.

 

‘Don’t worry,’ says the maths professor to the waiter, ‘I’ll be careful.’

 

Ten minutes later my new friend gets up to leave. Before he heads out the door he looks me in the eye and says, ‘I will write to you.’

 

DATE: MONDAY, 30 JANUARY 2017

TIME: 1:08 PM

LOCATION: LE CAPUCIN (CAFÉ)

WEATHER: GREY SKIES, SPITTING RAIN

 

I arrive later than I’d hoped to Le Capucin. I only have an hour before I need to leave. My usual table by the window is free but there is a man on the table next to me staring blankly at his mobile phone. Most of the customers are still wearing their coats. The plastic curtain that separates the terrace from the street is covered in condensation and drops of rain. I think of the A.A. Milne poem ‘Waiting by the Window’. In it a child names two raindrops James and John, and commentates as they compete in a race: first one down the window pane! There isn’t a clear winner here; none of the raindrops are moving.

 

On the corner of Place de la Chapelle and rue Marx Dormoy the street vendor has his wares spread out on a black blanket. He leans back against the black metal railings, shoulders hunched, hands in his pockets. He looks left, then right, then left again.

 

Just in front of the street vendor, a woman carrying a baby in a sling is waiting for somebody, rocking ever so slightly from left to right. The baby is covered in an apricot-coloured blanket. AG Courtage (AG Brokerage) is printed in white letters on the purple fabric of the woman’s bag.

 

The theatre poster on Place de la Chapelle has changed. ‘Tout ce que vous voulez’ (Everything you want) in white letters on a black background. Two actors, one half of their faces showing. Stephane de Groot and Berenice Bejo.

 

The Mairie de Paris digital display board is empty, unchanged.

 

The 35 goes to Mairie d’Aubervilliers.

 

The 65 goes up rue Marx Dormoy.

 

I hear the springs and push-buttons of a pinball machine. In the corner of the café to my right is a pinball machine I’ve never noticed before. The cast of The Sopranos are painted on its side, their faces white, ghostlike, their expressions grim. I recognise two out of ten: Steve Buscemi and James Gandolfini.

 

A young man walks past the café in a black bobble hat with white stars. I think of the American flag. The bobble is a mixture of threads: green, black, white and pink.

 

The 46 goes up rue Marx Dormoy.

 

My neighbour gets up from his table.

 

The 302 turns right down boulevard de Chapelle.

 

The 65 goes to Gare de Lyon

 

The sound of the pinball machine has stopped. Two men are lifting its front legs. As they try and repair it they chat loudly with the café owner who is leaning against the counter.

 

A large yellow postal truck drives down rue de la Chapelle.

 

A new customer sits down on the table next to me.

 

The 35 goes to the Mairie d’Aubervilliers.

 

The 65 goes to Porte de la Chapelle.

 

The original occupant of the table returns.

 

‘Oh, were you sitting here?’ says my new neighbour, acknowledging the unfinished cup of coffee on the table.

 

‘Yes, I was.’

 

‘Well feel free to come and join me,’ he says, settling in.

 

‘I’m actually waiting for someone,’ says the other man.

 

‘Well I always sit here,’ says my new neighbour. ‘I don’t have to tell you that but I’m telling you anyway. He crosses his arms and orders a coffee from his seat. The other man retreats to a bigger table at the back.

 

An elderly lady with a shopping trolley walks past the café. The shopping trolley is white with pink, orange and red flowers like a 1970s tablecloth.

 

A tall man walks past eating a sandwich out of a brown paper bag.

 

The metro goes left over the viaduct.

 

The two men finish the repairs to the pinball machine. The younger of the two joins my new neighbour, who stands up and asks the owner for three sugars instead of two. I pass him the lump of sugar from my saucer. Too late. The café owner has beat me to it. He thanks me anyway.

 

The man with the sandwich walks past the café in the direction he just came from.

 

Three men in black puffa jackets with matching fur-lined hoods are sitting in the terrace. They are huddled over the coffees even though the weather is much milder than it’s been in weeks.

 

The 65 goes down rue Marx Dormoy.

 

The metro crosses right over the viaduct.

 

It’s 1.33pm.

 

It’s hard to focus on what’s happening outside as my neighbours are talking loudly about how to get a café business up and running.

 

‘The Portuguese,’ says the man with three sugars, ‘are just like the Arabs.’

 

The 302 turns right down boulevard de la Chapelle.

 

The 35 goes to Aubervilliers.

 

A bus turns right up rue de Jessaint, a poster advertising the film ‘The Boyfriend’ on its side. James Franco is smiling.

 

‘You have to set business up quickly. If you don’t do it quickly, it means you can’t afford to get it done.’

 

The metro crosses right over the viaduct.

 

The 305 goes up down rue Marx Dormoy.

 

A woman simultaneously eats a banana and pushes a buggy down Place de la Chapelle.

 

The metro crosses left over the viaduct.

 

Two women enter the café to use the toilets. They each pay the required 50 cents.

 

The 35 goes up rue Marx Dormoy.

 

A white lorry with a blue logo ‘Médecins du monde’ (Doctors of the world) goes down Place de la Chapelle and turns right onto rue Marx Dormoy.

 

Two girls with oversized scarves walk past carrying brown paper Primark bags.

 

A young man pops his head into the terrace and tries to bum a cigarette off the three men in puffa jackets. They shake their heads solemnly.

 

Two CRS vans park up by the crossroads of rue Marx Dormoy and Boulevard de la Chapelle. Both vans are full.

 

The metro crosses left over the viaduct.

 

The street vendor walks past the café towards his usual spot, his Carrefour shopping bag in hand.

 

I never saw him leave.

 


Photographer: Pamela Shandel

Pamela Shandel is a photographer and artist-communicator. She was official photographer for the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Nevada and has shot the portraits of the greatest living gamblers for the book Gambling Greats. She has shot covers for numerous books including the first cover for the famous Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen.

 

 

Anna Pook
Anna Pook grew up in South London and lives in Paris. From 2009 to 2014, she was the resident creative writing instructor at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris.

She received an MA in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia, where she was the 2014/15 recipient of the Man Booker Scholarship. She is working on her debut novel.