Paris-based Femen, topless warriors

Ukrainian activist Inna Shevchenko, from the topless women's rights group Femen, poses in Paris

The training center of this extraordinary activist group that calls itself Femen is located in Paris. The Guardian newspaper calls them “topless warriors.”

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The Femen movement was created in the Ukraine in 2008 to protest against sex tourism, prostitution and the exploitation of women in the former Soviet state. Inna Shevchenko (pictured in the first photo above and here below) is the feminist crusader in charge of the Paris boot camp.  Daughter of an army officer, she took off her top and joined the Kiev protests. Ukraine is not a Brothel was their slogan.  As a consequence she lost her job as a press officer.  She then fled her country after a well-publicized stunt in which she wielded a chainsaw and chopped down a large wooden Orthodox cross in support of the jailed Russian feminists Pussy Riot.

Femen has set up camp in Paris’s poor and ethnically mixed Goutte d’Or district.

“The decision to bring the fight to France and open a training centre was a French initiative, an invitation from French feminists who sent us a message saying they needed us,” said Inna.  “Before then we thought of France as a first world and already feminist country that didn’t really need us. Since arriving, I have met many Frenchwomen and they say they need to start the fight again. We are bringing a new face, new blood, a new fight to feminism.”

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Is it not contradictory, a journalist asked her, that the new feminists are using nakedness to rail against female exploitation?

“Ah, but we have a different idea; we are talking about peaceful war, peaceful terrorism,” Inna said. “We are taking off our clothes so people can see that we have no weapons except our bodies. It’s a powerful way to fight in a man’s world. We live with men’s domination and this is the only way to provoke them, the only way to get attention.”

Activists from the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN

“We don’t hide our bodies, we don’t hide our faces, we confront our enemies face to face. We look them in the eyes and we have to be well prepared physically for that.”

There was, she explained patiently, no contradiction in going topless or naked to protest against what they view as the three main evils of a global “patriarchal society”: sexual exploitation, dictatorship and religion. Protesting naked, as Femen’s slogans insist, is liberté, a reappropriation of their own bodies as opposed to pornography or snatched photographs which are exploitation.

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On a less intellectual level, taking their clothes off ensures a lot of publicity.

She added: “Believe me, it is really difficult for me to take my clothes off and stand in a public place. But this is the fight, and the fight is never easy.”

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Oh, look…an early Femen painted by Eugène Delacroix in 1830.  It’s called Liberty Leading the People.  A woman personifying Liberty holds the flag of the French Revolution in one hand and brandishes a bayonette with the other.

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On a personal note, I’m blown away by the courageous audacity of these young women.  If I were 25 again and had small breasts, I think I’d join them.  I admire them.  But I’m also saddened because as a child of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s in North America, I have to ask:  What happened? Or rather, what didn’t happen?  Why, four decades later, are we still engaged in battle?  I thought we had abolished sexism, inequality and the rest.  It’s too clear that women the world over must keep affirming, keep defining and keep defending the cause in the face of subjugating forces that try to beat us down.  We must be ever-vigilant.

Today Femen protests against all forms of injustice.  Their slogans are concise:

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:  Gangster party in Davos.  Poor because of you.

Better bare than burka.

Fashion fascism (against anorexia)

Pope Benedict XVI:  Game over.

My body, my rules.

FEMEN members demonstrate at the congress centrum

Women of the world, unite.
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Margaret Drabble at the Shakespeare and Co. bookshop

It’s Valentine’s Day here in Paris and the weather couldn’t be more dreary as high winds and rain slash at the windows.  I feel sorry for tourists who are seeking refuge from the rain while struggling to keep their umbrellas from turning inside out.  As for me, I’m comfortably ensconced in my warm, cozy flat listening to classical music, drinking café crème and eating a toasted English muffin topped with a generous dollop of cherry jam.

Last night was a treat.  I crossed town to the 5th arrondissement and went to the much-loved bookshop, Shakespeare and Co., to meet Margaret Drabble and listen to her read from her new book, The Pure Gold Baby.Image five

I spent my adolescent and early adult years reading Margaret Drabble and Iris Murdoch. Their novels were on my mother’s bookshelf, and I read what my mother read.  Margaret Drabble, like my mother, comes from Sheffield in the north of England.

Having a favourite, esteemed author sit just a few feet away from you is rather awe-inspiring. I stared at the delicate features of 74-year old Dame Drabble (she was awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2008) and felt admiration for the prolific literary works she has produced over her lifetime. For those who don’t know, her sister, A.S. Byatt, is also a famous author and a Dame too.  In 2008, The Times newspaper named her one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. I highly recommend Byatt’s novel, Possession, for which she won the Booker Prize.

Book-lovers should visit the Shakespeare and Co. bookshop. (photo above). It’s a snug, cozy place.

“Established in 1951 by George Whitman, this atmospheric book store is a must-see. Near Notre Dame cathedral and just across the Seine, this book store is the epic centre of Anglo-Saxon life in Paris. Packed on three floors you’ll find English books literally everywhere. Even the stove is supported by piles of old National Geographics. The whole place breathes the atmosphere of more than half a century of a legendary literary and cultural oasis of English language in the heart of Paris. The bookstore spreads on three levels and is crammed with books on almost any subject imaginable. The top floor still serves as a writers room and an open library to all visitors.”

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Ms. Drabble signed my newly-purchased book and I left the shop feeling dead chuffed which means very pleased in the north of England.

Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Pompidou Centre

“The photograph itself doesn’t interest me. I want only to capture a minute part of reality.”  Henri Cartier-Bresson

«Photographier c’est mettre sur la même ligne de mire la tête, l’oeil et le coeur.» To photograph is to put the head, the eye and the heart in the same line of vision.cartier_bresson_03Cartier-Bresson (August 22, 1908 – August 3, 2004), a French photographer considered to be the father of photojournalism. He was an early adopter of 35 mm format and the master of candid photography. He helped develop the street photography or life reportage style that has influenced generations of photographers who followed.

I’ve been admiring this black and white print of his, entitled En Brie, on my apartment wall for 16 years.  Just had it re-framed it last week.bressonOpening today, February 12, 2014, at the Pompidou Centre is a retrospective of his career. More than 350 photographs, films, documents and other archives will be on display until June 9, 2014.

Vivian Maier, photography exhibitions, and the Jeu de Paume

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Vivian Maier, an American street photographer, was born in New York City in 1926 but spent much of her childhood in France. After returning to the States, she moved to Chicago in 1956 where she lived until her death in 2009.  Her talent is comparable with that of the major figures of American street photography such as Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand.

Unfortunately, the current exhibition showcasing Maier’s work is not being shown in Paris, but in Tours (in the Loire region, but easily accessible on the high-speed train on a day trip.)  Take a look at the link below to see more of Maier’s photos, and also to see the upcoming agenda for the Jeu de Paume arts center located in the Tuileries Gardens. Opening on February 11th, 2014 is an exhibition dedicated to American photographer, Robert Adams.  He was born in Orange (New Jersey) in 1937.  He grew up first in Wisconsin and then Colorado where he lived for over three decades before moving to Oregon. Since the mid-1960s, Adams has been considered one of the most important and influential chroniclers of the American West.  Click on link below.

http://www.parisphoto.com/agenda/vivian-maier

Winter gray, the Breizh Café, the Marais

How many shades of gray are there?  When I look up to the winter sky in Paris I can think of many: pewter, pearl, slate, stone, dove.  You get the picture.  When I first moved here I was disheartened by the long, unbroken stretches of gray days that befall Parisians during the winter season.  This is, after all, northern Europe.  I missed (and still do) those invigoratingly cold but sunny days in Canada when temperatures drop below zero but the sky is magnificent, blue and cloudless.  Not so, here.  Just endless gray and fairly mild days.  No ice. No snow. Just gray.

To lift my spirits, I took the metro to the Marais district and had an early lunch at probably one of the best creperies in town located at 109 rue Vieille du Temple.  The Breizh Cafe is a snug place full of Breton music and patrons sitting at wooden tables happily tucking into crepes and drinking cider.  As I shed my damp coat and joined the fray, I felt a surge of exultation just thinking about what was to follow. The name Breizh, incidentally, means Brittany in Breton, the indigenous Celtic language.

You must know that there are two different kinds of crepe: sweet and savoury.  The savoury ones aren’t called crepes, they’re called galettes and they’re made from buckwheat flour called sarrasin.  The classic galette is ham, cheese and egg; the cheese being grated gruyere or emmenthal.  It came to my table hot off the griddle, thin and tasty as all get-out.  The exterior slightly crunchy, the inside oozy with melted cheese and quality ham.  It’s the simplicity and sheer deliciousness of certain foods that makes France a great destination for foodies.  A crusty baguette with butter, ham and mustard, for example, can be a memorable experience if the ingredients are quality.  Or a simple green salad (just lettuce and nothing else) with a well-done vinaigrette.  In the case of the Breizh, the secret of its success is the authenticity of their products.  All products, including the butter, are shipped in from the French region of Brittany, the home of galettes and crepes, cider, sea-salt caramels and a dozen other delectable delights.

Seeking to quench my thirst, I ordered cider.  The waiter uncorked a large bottle of apple cider and filled up a small earthenware bowl. The cider sparkled and swirled and the taste of it was clean, dry and very flavourful.   After my second bowl of cider, I asked to see the dessert menu.  I don’t think anyone has left the Breizh Cafe without ordering a sweet crepe which is made from a different kind of flour called froment.  The simplest you can get is garnished with lemon juice and sugar; I chose the strawberry jam.  The sweet crepes have that slight rubbery texture that the galettes do not; it was as hot and delicious as my first course.

Next door is a small shop attached to the restaurant where you can buy the cider, the butter, the sea-salt caramels, and all the other delicious products transported from Brittany in north-western France.  I love visiting Brittany.  A few summers ago I took the train to the Morbihan coastal town of Lorient and then a boat to a small island called l’ile de Groix (to my dismay the place was crawling with Parisians because it was August.)  I think it’s time to make a return trip, not to the Morbihan but probably back to Saint-Malo, a walled port city, and the charming town of Dinard nearby. There are some lovely coastal walks in that region and the sea air is cold and fabulously briny.  Saint-Malo is the birthplace of explorer Jacques Cartier who set off from that seaport in 1534 to discover Canada. But I’m digressing.

Back outside, I walked north, purposefully avoiding the trendy, touristy part of the lower Marais because I prefer to stroll off the beaten track in order to see the authentic Marais, the part that hasn’t been gentrified, Gap-ified and Starbucks-ified.  So walk north, fellow travellers, and admire the historic buildings, the shops and lived-in squares and courtyards that the locals, not the tourists, inhabit.

Sunday February 2nd, 2014

After weeks of dank, dismal weather, Parisians awoke this morning to brilliant sunshine and a cobalt-blue sky.  I went for a brisk walk around my neighbourhood.  I’ve been gazing at cakes lately through the windows of my local pastry shops.  I think the best word to describe them is…ethereal.  Perfect with a glass of champagne.Neuilly, Sunday February 2, 2014 003Neuilly, Sunday February 2, 2014 002

Here’s the perfect place to take children: the Jardin d’Acclimatation located on the fringes of the Bois de Boulogne.  The 49-acre zoo and amusement park includes an archery range, house of mirrors, miniature-golf course, a miniature train, pony rides, a puppet theater, shooting galleries, a petting zoo and a science museum called the Exploradome.  Grown-ups also enjoy this place.  I go often during the summer months, with or without my godchildren.

Neuilly, Sunday February 2, 2014 004Entire families were actually lined up to get inside, which surprised me for a cold albeit sunny February Sunday.Neuilly, Sunday February 2, 2014 006

I then headed over to the Frank Gehry building that has been under construction since 2006.  Called the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, it is intended to be an art museum and cultural center when it finally opens.  But when will it open?  The $143 million museum was expected to open in 2014, but there have been legal problems.  It’s incongruously tucked behind the horse stables on a patch of land.  The stable is located beside the Jardin d’Acclimatation.

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Incidentally, I recommend this fish restaurant.  There’s a chain of them throughout France and several in Paris.  The fish is fresh, prices are reasonable and service is efficient.Neuilly, Sunday February 2, 2014 025