Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Inner Courtyards of Staszica, Poznan

The district of Jeźyce, in Poznan, Poland, is crammed with art nouveau architecture. Each building is different, each façade an original work of art. In Slowackiego there's the old cinema where concerts are now occasionally performed. Further on there's a school with the figure of the Archangel Michael built into the walls, taken from the old fortifications when they were demolished, and given a new home here high up on the brick wall. 

Old cinema

Further on there is Staszica, a wide street which used to be lined with trees – according to J, who grew up in this district – but now only has a few. Almost all of these once grand buildings, architectural aristocrats, are now down at heel, their grandeur faded, relics of a past era of almost century ago, a way of life barely imaginable to us now. Yet there are echoes of this pre-war era, in almost every courtyard we go into, the past flickering alongside the near emptiness and silence of the present. The vast wooden doors, through which horse drawn carriages must once have passed, hooves clacking on the cobblestones.

Beyond the heavy wooden outer doors are courtyards where there used to be gardens and fruit trees but nowadays the garden areas are used to park cars, or are made into garages or have simply been left untended, a mixture of worn earth and gravel, patches of weeds. We push open these massive doors, designed it would seem to keep out the front runners of an army fully equipped with heavy spears and battering rams – for of course I am thinking of an ancient army, modern ones would calmly toss a grenade though even that might backfire in the face of such resistant solidity – and go through into the courtyards. Some of them have a bare, scant and neglected look to them – gravel, some empty bottles lying around, clumps of grass. Others still have the occasional fruit tree growing there, and have been brightened with murals. J says that this project was a government scheme to get the community involved in smartening up the courtyards, giving them attention and care. 
mural - the cafe


One of these murals shows people sitting at café tables, reading newspapers. Through the first entrance door and the first courtyard there is another archway, this one with ivy drifting across it, a few fronds hanging down, hinting at the effect of a bower. Beyond this archway is the next courtyard or garden, and the mural is painted on the back wall. The paintings are in black and white, and the café customers are not modern people, you can tell by their clothes, and by the café chairs and tables, reminiscent of the thirties or even earlier. I imagine that the theme of the murals was deliberately set as an aspect of the past, so that their memories will be preserved.

In another courtyard a small area has been returned to a garden, with tended plants and flowers in among stones and rocks, and a bench in front of it. Behind this rock and herb garden there's a mural, again in black and white. It depicts a handful of children who seem to be watching one girl who is standing in front of something.
I don't know what it is they are looking at says J, and I look more closely. It has what looks like an iron framework, and rollers within the framework and the girl is holding something that looks like a piece of cloth which is attached to the rollers. There's a large handle for turning, at the side. It's a mangle I say, to help dry clothes. The wet laundry is put between the rollers, the handle is cranked, and the water is squeezed out of the clothes, as they pass between the rollers. I explain this to J who has never seen or heard of such a thing! 

ceiling decorations

Our final visit is to an old apartment block whose outer doors stand ajar. This one does not lead through to a courtyard but has a hallway with the remains of painted decorations still visible on the ceiling. The wide staircase is all made of wood, the banisters, and the steps. They look as though no-one has walked up here in a long time. Silence hangs over the whole building, as if time has grown thick here, congealed into a mixture of dust and crumbled plaster, damp with the passage of old emotions, worn into the wooden steps.

At the top of the first flight of steps there is a doorway, next to a window with small grimy panes, some of them still with the delicate decorations of the original panes. Much of the paintwork on this door has peeled away leaving distorted curling patterns that talk of absence, neglect, misfortune even, frayed bonds between persons and buildings for who knows what reasons, but the past century has supplied many, wars and conflicts, shifting national boundaries, displacement and exile, flight and loss. Outside the door stand two old wooden cupboards and a rolled-up carpet leaning against them. The atmosphere is of abject and desolate abandonment. 



But the buildings are gradually being renovated and the newly painted outer doors preen themselves like bright birds alongside their more dowdy neighbours. These new ones are fitted with locks and entryphone systems so we cannot see inside them. But one of them is ajar and I push it open, to reveal the gleam of half lit tiles, and the walls lingering in shadow, the kind of secrets that are kept hidden out of some inner joy so deeply felt that even in silence they throw beams of light, emanations of wishes and desires that spilled over into tiles and walls, into plants and light, into paintwork and carvings. Suggestions multiply like echoes, like music in a vaulted building. I pull the door to, carrying the echo of these images with me. One day the abandoned building may also look something like this, its wooden steps polished, its doorway repainted, its ceiling shiny with opulence, a bicycle maybe, propped against an upper balcony.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Kalanchoe and cat, Avenue des Gobelins

Tiled image in brasserie, avenue des Gobelins

Ils préfèrent l’intérieur said the man in the flower shop when I asked about the plant I bought, with the cluster of small red flowers, wondering if it could live outdoors or if it was an indoor plant. And the name? I ask him. Kalanchoe, he says.

I have hovered around the plants for some time, and finally decided on this one.
C’est pour offrir? he asks me. Un cadeau?
Oui, I say.

He picks up the plant and goes into the shop. We’ve been outside, where plants and bunches of flowers have spilled out onto the wide pavement of the avenue des Gobelins. He goes through the shop and into a small room at the back. It’s really quite a large shop and contains many green and colourful plants, scents swirl in a thick atmosphere of plant-breath, yes, it must be the breathing of plants, that makes the air dense and almost liquid – for there is moisture in the air, isn’t there – this semi-solidity of scented air pungent with greenery, that slows me down as I walk through it.

No, it isn’t large at all yet it seems so – it is narrow, and the narrowness, and the closeness to the plants and flowers and the moisture of their breath and their thick scents slow you down and so, makes it seem long. Or – it’s a magical threshold and once you’ve crossed it this deceptively small shop entrance, it opens out, turns out to be much bigger, once you’re inside, than you could ever have dreamed it was – but that’s the nature of magic and thresholds – they expand, out of the logical, the commonplace, they half twist and turn, out of the usual perception of la quotidienne, and boundaries vanish and one enters the unknown -

At the far end of the narrow shop, full of these breathing, scented life-forms, and just before the lit doorway through which the flower seller has vanished, there is a till, a cash register. It looks like one of these old ones that used to ring, after you pressed the keys, denoting the amount to be paid in. Probably it is not, it is most likely perfectly modern and up to date. I only see the back of it. A black and white cat sits on top of the cash register. I put out my hand and stroke it. It ignores me.

The flower seller has disappeared into the brightly-lit doorway of the room at the back. He is wrapping the plant in cellophane, attaching red ribbons to the package, to match the cluster of compact red flowers.

From the Marché de la Poésie at Saint Sulpice,  I sat for a while in the Jardin de Luxembourg. Movable green chairs are scattered around so that people can sit where they want. One is near the bench I’m sitting on. I’m resting my feet on the other. An older woman with short, curly grey hair, and wearing a lightweight raincoat, asks me if the chair is free. Yes, I say. She takes it off a little way, sits down, facing the grass, the trees, rather than the path. A little later I hear ripping sounds. She is tearing a piece of paper into very small pieces. Rip rip. Quite slowly and deliberately. When I look over again, a few minutes later, she has gone.

In the Jardin de Luxembourg

It has been sunny today, warm enough to take off my jacket. But now it has clouded over, there’s a breeze. I wonder if there will be rain as there was yesterday in the early evening. Among the scents – flowers, leafy trees, garlic and herbs cooking, the acrid scent coming up from the vents over the metro – there is a damp smell, the rain clouds throwing their shadow scents in front of them. I walk from the Jardin de Luxembourg, along rue Saint Jaques, passing a fruit shop that also sells herbs in pots, which gives me the idea to buy a plant for S as a present. After the Boulevard Auguste Blanqui I turn right up the Avenue des Gobelins, and find the flower shop.

Clutching my plant, as well as the umbrella, I walk home, past Place d’Italie, and arrive at rue Caillaux. The sky is heavy with grey and purple clouds, but it does not rain.