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Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris. Her work has appeared in Utne Reader, The Wall Street Journal, Girls’ Guide to Paris, and the anthology Strangers in Paris, among other venues. She holds an MFA from Vermont College and is currently seeking publication of her first novel.  She blogs about the City of Light’s quirkier side at  paris (im)perfect. Her website is siondayson.com.

David Barnes of Spoken Word Paris reads as a member of The Pillow Project riffs

On Tuesday November 27, The Pillow Project paid a visit to legendary bookshop Shakespeare & Company. The Pittsburgh-based troupe plays “freejazz,” an improvisational form they describe as “using the body as the instrument playing visual notes.”

The experimental group is starting to forge deeper ties to Paris. On hand for the event were members of the city’s active spoken word scene.


Festival America writers in Paris Untapped CitiesA gathering of leading literary voices at Festival America

Every two years, Festival America brings “les littératures américaines dans tous leurs états” to France.

That is America in the largest sense, including the play on words that it’s literature in “all its states.”

For Festival America wasn’t just celebrating literature from the United States this past weekend; 70 writers from countries in both North and South America participated in a jam-packed extravaganza of panels and debates, discussing everything from the big questions of society to family relationships in fiction.


Barcelona has a reputation as a party town and no wonder. A city on the sea boasting sunshine during the day and warm breezes at night? It’s a place made for getting down. I had the great fortune of attending one of the city’s biggest celebrations. It’s pronounced differently in Catalan, but the ‘Festa Major de Grà­  cia’ is indeed a major fiesta.

As is annual tradition each August, the normally quiet streets of this quaint neighborhood tucked towards Barcelona’s hills transformed into a pulsing outdoor party. Every barrio in the city has its own mass block party, but Grà­  cia’s has become the largest and loudest by far. It’s estimated that a million and a half visitors flock to its many plazas and small streets for the festivities.

What exactly is involved in a week-long party? During the 196th edition of the Festa Major de Grà­  cia, which ran from August 15-21, I stayed in an apartment in the center of the action. I saw the answer up close.

Beautifully decorated streets (Carrer Joan Blanques).

Correfocs, literally ‘fire-runs,’ where people dressed as devils set off fireworks in the crowds.

People shooting really loud rifles.

This man agrees the guns are too loud. Notice the ‘caps grossos’ (big heads) behind, another typical feature in parades.

I didn’t snag a photo of the castellars (human towers), but these are also an amazing sight to see.

What I loved most about the Festa Major, however, was the creativity of the community. Each year there’s a competition that crowns victor the best decorated street. Because I was living in the neighborhood, I saw the residents preparing their creations for days beforehand.

Carrer Verdi ended up taking top prize with its Western-themed fort and saloon.

Carrer Verdi, the 2012 Victor.

My personal favorites (aside from my close neighbor Joan Blanques) were a rectangle of streets located in lower Grà­  cia, a trio of which toted idealistic names (Progrés, Libertat, Fraternitat). Here seemed the perfect blend of craft, humor, whimsy, and innovation.

Carrer de la Fraternitat.

Carrer del Progrés, aka Star Wars street.

Carrer de la Tordera.

Carrer de la Libertat, aka the Sewing Street.

Look closely at the dresses on the “sewing street.” They’re made of coffee capsules, soda can tops, and other ordinary items. There’s even a wedding dress made of toilet paper. So creative!

And, of course, there was much drinking, dancing, and carousing in the streets. Once the Festa Major de Grà­  cia was geared only toward residents, but the secret got out and now the whole city shows up. Lots of tourists, too. The crowds create a buzzing atmosphere, but I wondered at times if Grà­  cia ever wanted its own party back.

Rock band on Carrer Pugimarti.

Resident or visitor, the Festa Major will sweep you up in revelry. There was a diverse array of music – from rock to swing to ska to traditional Catalan tunes – but I ran across very few stunning acts. The majority of the groups I stumbled upon sang cover songs. Of course, at midnight, with beer or sangria or mojito in hand, most people were more than pleased to belt out some Aerosmith and Joan Jett (true story!). Heck, I was, too.

If you’re in Barcelona in August, definitely put the Festa Major de Grà­  cia on your agenda. If you decide to book a hotel in the neighborhood, just be forewarned: you won’t sleep for a week.

Get in touch with the author @parisimperfect. Follow her blog and visit her website.

An acclaimed Australian-born writer, journalist, and filmmaker, John Baxter has made his home in Paris since 1989. His career successfully spans several different mediums and genres from screenwriting to science fiction, documentaries to memoir.

Baxter is a bibliophile (the first of his memoirs written in Paris was A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict) and a serious movie buff. He’s authored several biographies of famed film luminaries including Federico Fellini, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, and Robert De Niro, just to name a few.

Baxter’s latest work is The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris. Composed of 37 chapters, each elegantly linked to the next, the book is a delightful stroll through the city, its history, and the author’s own observations about his adopted home.

I was particularly fond of Baxter’s seamless weaving of personal anecdotes with fascinating facts, a fluid prose that makes it one of the most pleasurable Paris books I’ve read in a long time. His love of the city comes through, as well as his wit and intelligence. A vignette might evoke Paris’ classic beauty (Luxembourg Gardens, for example), but is just as likely to veer into lesser-known terrain (mass murderer Henri Désiré Landru who often met his victims in those very same gardens!) Hemingway haunts, opium dens, “political walks” (manifs) — Baxter covers wide ground. His asides were also great. (“Not great laughers, the French”¦Interestingly, there’s no French equivalent of the phrase ‘bedside manner.’”)

We like the quirky and offbeat around here so I asked John Baxter if he’d be willing to write about one of his strolls off the beaten path. Happily he agreed! He also provided the photos. Enjoy!

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Plastered on the haunch of the butte of Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement is off the beaten track, with an architecture and lifestyle all its own. Along rue Marcadet, diamond-shaped lots from the days when these were market gardens or guinguettes have dictated apartment blocks with parallelogram floor plans. What does it do to your brain, to live in a room with no right angles? Maybe it accounts for the pale faces that stare out from a few windows; shut-ins, with nothing to do but watch the world go by.

Caught in the gaps between these crooked habitations, like bits of gristle in a set of crooked teeth, businesses survive that you seldom see in more prosperous districts; plumbing supply shops, shoe repairers, furniture movers, moulders of false teeth.

And probably undertakers too, along with makers of funerary monuments. The Montmartrois joke that once you visit the dixhuitieme, you stay forever — because it’s the arrondissement with the largest number of graveyards.

The Cimetière de Montmartre is certainly a tourist magnet. Some visitors come to lay flowers on the tomb of a relative, but most make the pilgrimage to view celebrity graves like those of Vaclac Nijinsky, with its statue, commissioned by the choreographer Serge Lifar, of the dancer dressed for his puppet role in Petrushka ; of Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone, the only tomb in the world decorated with a facsimile of that instrument; and the resting place of Marie Duplessis, the original Lady of the Camellias, inspiration of Dumas fils’ Camille and of Violetta in La Traviata. After she expired, young and destitute, a lover paid to have her buried in a sheltered spot in the lee of low wall. The sun falls lightly on her sandstone crypt, which is often decorated with fresh camellias.

Like a gated community of the prosperous departed, the cemetery has only one entrance, and that on the uphill side, tucked out of sight under a viaduct on busy rue Caulaincourt. (There is a second gate but, with typical French quirkiness, it’s open only one day of the year — Toussaint: All Saints Day.) Next to the main entrance on quiet rue Rachel is a modern residential block, part of a chain of self-catered holiday apartments, though one has to wonder who would choose to spend a visit to Paris in such a dismal location.

Most days, the gate admits a flow of exasperated tourists and mourners who, having got off the bus at the downhill end, have been forced to trudge around the entire circumference of the cemetery to get in. Because of this, nearby streets are well supplied with bars in which parched visitors can enjoy a reviving beer.

Mine au Poivre on rue Montcalm is just such a place: a shady retreat to escape from the heat and catch one’s breath. But there are plenty more like it, and I might have walked right by but for the music drifting out its door — an old Tina Turner number, but sung in French. Glancing in, I glimpsed a large painted board above the door to the kitchen. It announced “Vérigood”.

On a whim, I went in and sat down. The music tape segued from Nutbush City Limits to the Flower Duet from Lakme. Odd.

A few minutes later, the waiter materialised at my elbow. “Je vous ecoute”.

I nodded towards the sign. “Pourquoi ‘Vérigood’?”

“Because is very good.”

“What is?”

Boeuf bourguignon. Best in Paris. Fifteen hours cooking.”

The music tape switched to a wailing tenor, singing in Arabic.

“OK. And a pichet of bourgogne.” I knew without asking that it would be, consistent with the tradition of boeuf bourguignon, the same wine as used in cooking the dish.

Tiny establishments like this make me feel I’ve stepped into a film from the 1940s; one of those dramas about a middle-aged train driver or cinema projectionist, driven to murder by his love for a randy and restless woman: Manon Lescaut meets La Bete Humaine.

Who was the killer? Probably the middle-aged man sitting in silence at one of the tables on the sidewalk. And his victim? Obviously the woman opposite. Their marriage was flat as the half-drunk glasses of Stella Artois on the table between them.

At the bar, a man in a baggy suit paged through Liberation. He would be the jaded cop who solves the case, a soixante-huitard plodding through his last months before retirement, but not so dulled that he doesn’t recognize homicide when he sees it. Two stools along, a thin woman with a mass of black frizzy hair drank a Pernod and offered her bony profile to be admired. Too old to play the femme fatale , she could be the malicious neighbour, forced by a shady past to inform on the killer…

“Bon appetit.”

The waiter plonked down a deep dish, with a basket of bread.

I’d expected the usual stringy meat swimming in watery gravy with boiled potatoes and carrots. Instead, the beef arrived in a dark heap, barely moist, piled on a bed of puree. I tasted the puree first, an infallible test of authenticity, and found, with pleasure, those few scattered lumps of unmashed potato that signify the home-made variety. As for the meat, it fell apart under the fork, tender and succulent. Fifteen hours of cooking hadn’t been wasted.

In a word, verigood.

And very dixhuitieme.

For more offbeat strolls through Paris, pick up a copy of John Baxter’s The Most Beautiful Walk in the World. Check out his Facebook page to learn how to join one of his literary walks yourself.

Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris. Her nonfiction has appeared in  The Utne Reader, The Wall Street Journal, Girls’ Guide to Paris  and her fiction in  Smokelong Quarterly  and the anthology  Strangers in Paris, among other venues. She holds an MFA from Vermont College and is currently seeking publication of her first novel. She blogs about the City of Light’s quirkier side at  paris (im)perfect.

I saw this the other day and thought, yes!

Walk and invent your life.

As it happened, that’s exactly what I was out doing.  I’ve made a promise to myself: keep eyes (and ears and heart) open and find inspiration wherever it may exist.  In Paris, I don’t usually have to look far.

Recently I literally stumbled right into inspiration. On the way home, I saw a small group of four people looking down at green pamphlets and looking questioningly at a door. Then they went in.

On the spur of the moment, I followed.

Turns out it was a “portes ouvertes” in my neighborhood. This is always one of my favorite events, and even better when discovered serendipitously. 56 artists in the ‘hood were opening their doors to their studios and showcasing their work.

The portes ouvertes in Belleville is better known. It was great to discover an association of artists even closer to home.

As per usual, I was more interested in discovering some of these hidden spaces than in taking in most of the art.

(I’m just going to come clean: I feel stupid when I look at most contemporary art. I’m happy it exists, I love that artists are expressing themselves as they feel moved, but I tend not to get it.)

Having an awesome, unconventional space in Paris, though?  That I totally get (and covet).

I’m not sure where I’m headed next, but I’m just going to keep taking one step at a time. Follow the footsteps. Take random turns. Walk and invent my life.

The next Portes Ouvertes at 77, rue de Bagnolet, will take place on December 1st and 2nd, 2012. For more information check out the website of the Ateliers du    Père-Lachaise Associés. The Belleville Portes Ouvertes takes place once a year in May.

Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Utne Reader, The Wall Street Journal, Girls’ Guide to Paris and her fiction in Smokelong Quarterly and the anthology Strangers in Paris, among other venues. She holds an MFA from Vermont College and is currently seeking publication of her first novel. She blogs about the City of Light’s quirkier side at paris (im)perfect.