Recovering memory one image at a time

At the age of fourteen, I made my first visit to Paris, going by ferry boat across the Channel to Calais and then a steam train to the Gare du Nord. On the platform, along with my schoolmates, we met the various French families who would host us for the next three weeks. We also met the Parisian schoolboys who would return to spend three weeks with us in Britain.

My exchange student was called Claude. We were ill-matched. I was a very young and undersized fourteen, just out of short trousers and my voice had yet to break. Claude was almost two meters tall, had a pompous manner and a big nose that made him look like a young Charles de Gaulle. He wanted to be a paratrooper and go to war in Algeria. This was curious, since some leaders of the French army in Algeria had just launched a military coup to protest President de Gaulle’s announcement of formal negotiations that would lead to Algerian independence.

So my Paris is not just the glories of the Louvre and Les Invalides, the scents of food and the Metro’s smell of body odor, perfume, and black tobacco. It includes the memory of police stations guarded by sandbags and machine-gun nests and of paniers a salade (as police vans were known) being stuffed full of Algerians rounded up from cafés. Since Claude enjoyed such sights, he liked to make us walk along Batignolles to Place de Clichy, past the Moulin Rouge and along to Pigalle where he would ogle the overpainted and underdressed women who lounged by doorways.

I preferred the pastry shop at the bottom of the Rue Lepic’s steps up to Montmartre, which made the best tarte au citron I have ever had. My first real coffee, my first smell of a hot croissant, my first glass of wine, my first cigarette, my first game of pinball; I learned a lot from Claude.

Three years later, I made my first trip to New York, wearing the uniform of a cadet in the Royal Air Force as part of a NATO exchange. We were installed in the Waldorf Astoria and I had never seen a bathroom like the one I saw there, never thought such luxury existed. The cars were enormous and the steaks likewise. The buildings were impossibly high, the cops looked tough, all the men looked busy, and the women seemed to have been polished and their hair sculpted. The Daily News was even more brash than I had been told, the skyline more spectacular, the voices louder and the breakfasts more gargantuan. It was just how New York was supposed to be, in your face and larger than life.

It may be because I fell in love with these two cities as an adolescent that I find Frank’s photos so powerful, not just as triggers of memory and nostalgia of place, but of the tastes and smells and feel of another time. And the cities felt in some profound way to be siblings. Paris was the big sister, the capital of Then; New York was the precocious kid brother just come into his full size, the capital of Now. One reeked of history, the other of the immediate and tumultuous present. Paris was tamed; New York still wild.

They were still cities that were not just visibly but tangibly composed of neighborhoods. You could never mistake Pigalle for Montparnasse, nor Belleville for the Marais. The architecture was different, along with the accents, the street theater, the look of the girls, the watchfulness of the eyes of the guys at the ridiculously tiny tables outside the cafés. Every quarter had its own personality and its own specialities in its own markets. The Tunisian pastries you found at the Marché aux Enfants Rouges along the rue de Bretagne were never available at the Marché Edgar Quinet in Montparnasse, which was the place for chocolates, just as you went to the Marché d’Aligre at Ledru- Rollin for the street musicians and the Marché Bastille for the performers, from mime to escapologists.

In New York there was a real Chinatown, a Little Italy that still had wise guys, a theater district, and only one Village. And as Leonard Cohen later was to sing, there was music on Clinton Street all through the evening. Yorkville still had diners with German food and women were still banned from McSorley’s Ale House. You could still find the dive on 52nd Street where W. H. Auden greeted the imminence of World War II, “Uncertain and afraid, At the end of a low, dishonest decade.” NYU and Columbia and the mega-hospitals had not quite requisitioned their respective districts. The subway didn’t feel quite as antique as it does today, there were phone kiosks on almost every corner, and the cab drivers smoked cigars.

The two cities took their politics seriously. I remember being in one march against the Vietnam War with Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Jeanne Moreau. Later in that summer of 1968 I watched workmen digging up the pavés, the stone blocks that paved so many of the streets, so the demonstrators of May 1968 could never again dig them up to build barricades to hurl against the riot police.

We tend to forget that les événements began with students at Nanterre University protesting the Vietnam War just as the Paris Peace Accords were getting under way, one of the triggers that became something close to a revolution that forced de Gaulle to flee Paris. We forget also that after protesters beat back the riot police on the night of May 10, the Latin Quarter was briefly renamed the Heroic Vietnam Quarter. A few years later I watched the Vietnam Veterans Against the War march on the New York City offices of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President.

Read the rest of Martin Walker’s foreword in Frank Van Riper’s new book Recovered Memory: New York and Paris 1960-1980

Frank Van Riper

Frank Van Riper is an internationally acclaimed documentary and fine art photographer, journalist and author. His photographs are in the permanent collections of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, the photography archive of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and the Tides Institute collection, Eastport Maine, among others.

Martin Walker

Martin Walker is an internationally renowned journalist and foreign policy scholar, and author of the bestselling ‘Bruno’ series of crime novels set in the Perigord region of France. He is a senior fellow of the Global Business Policy Council, based in Washington, DC.