Feed your inner-European - it's not too late

Like you, I was one of the desolate ones on June 24th. For every reason the Brexit result was appalling but it was a feeling of loss and grief that many of us had not felt before. Suddenly we felt that Europe had been taken away from us overnight.

Admittedly this sounds melodramatic (some of us had been up all night) but my wife and I wept. It wasn't about new visa queues or poor rates of exchange or cheap flights going. It was deeper than that. It was about estrangement. It was about feeling less like a European citizen and more like a sad visitor being forced to have less and less in common with our neighbours. Brexit is destined to make little Englanders of us all.

All our eulogies and elegies for the European project were moving and heartfelt but if only our emotional outpourings had come earlier. Even its supporters were guilty of taking the EU for granted in a half-hearted way during Britain's forty year membership. Whose heart ever missed a beat as Francois Hollande arrived in Brussels for another Common Agricultural Policy meeting? But David Cameron's mealy-mouthed EU-lite approach didn't exactly set the house alight either.

On many fronts the EU hasn't always been good at promoting its work. When it comes to culture, the EU translation fund will be badly missed, but the European Literature Prize, which had the potential to be one of our major book prizes was never widely promoted or gained much traction. Maybe a little symptomatic of how the EU, could have done with more profile raising in the UK. I received more regular information about the pizza delivery company round the corner than I ever did about the EU.

But now the economy appears to be in freefall, even some Brexiters are having second thoughts. The rest of us can tell them 'I told you so' while feeling guilty that we didn't love Europe enough.

But with Brexit set to drag Britain into a downward spiral of economic uncertainty and insularity over the next two years and beyond, does our response have to be a negative one?

Not at all.

I personally believe that the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from us Remainers has left us feeling more European than ever. While we once might have liked Europe, now, faced with the alternative, we are prepared  to say we love it.

And the perfect way of showing our new-found love is through European culture. Culturally, you see, we simply don't have to accept Brexit.

Embracing our Europeaness with a vengeance for fear of what will replace it, can I believe encourage an already growing appetite for European writing.

Fiction in translation accounted for 7% of sales in 2015; while the market for fiction fell, translated fiction sales increased. Books like My Brilliant Friend, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair have put European fiction at the front of bookshops and we all know of countless other riches out there just waiting to be read. Publishers and bookshops will miss this opportunity at their peril.

Depressed that David Davies wants to clear our streets of European nationalities and languages? Check out Elena Ferrante and immerse yourself in her wonderful Neapolitan street life.

Mortified that anything vaguely progressive in our lives will be vanishing? Read Knausgaard's first volume and experience downtown Stockholm in all its social democratic glory and excellent child-care.

Worried that the Brexit-loving Daily Mail will infect our lives further with celebrity drivel? Then read Proust for some of the best high-level gossip going.

As the dark Brexit days draw near, European fiction, poetry and drama - and let's not forget film and music - can be the way to remind us 48% that a rich, multicultural and diverse life is still out there.

Subscribe to Periene Press's brilliant European novella series, click on Love Films' international button, join a cultural institute's library. Don't let the Brexiters grind us down.

We might have been too standoffish in the past but hopefully we've learnt our lesson. It's time to feed our inner-European - and it's not too late.

Malcolm Burgess is the publisher of Oxygen Books city-pick series featuring writing on European cities www.oxygenbooks.co.uk

Big thanks to Brick Lane Books, Shoreditch for the inspiring book promo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'From buying underwear to chewing a hunk of baguette is somehow more stylish because you're doing it in Paris.' Stephen Clarke on all things Parisian in city-lit Paris.



Author Stephen Clarke

Paris is not entirely unique. You can sit in cafés, wear designer clothes and even have sex in lots of other towns.


It just feels unique, as if everything you do, from buying underwear to chewing a hunk of baguette, is somehow more stylish because you’re doing it in Paris. Certainly Parisians act as if they’re unique — not as a community but each individual one of them. It is the city of moi. As they walk down the street they’re thinking, look at moi. Even when they’re kissing a friend on the cheeks, they’re saying it – moi, moi.


And the obsession driving each moi is its lifestyle. Parisians have elevated lifestyle to an art ― no, more than an art, it is (as only the French can say properly) a raison d’être. In summer, they close off a whole chunk of the road running along the right bank of the Seine — the city’s main throughway — to create Paris Plages, a chain of imported beaches, riverside cafés, performance spaces, even pétanque pitches. Block a main inner-city artery so that people can play pétanque? Not many capitals would do that.


Similarly, the new Vélib scheme ― cheap bike rental — was instantly adopted by Parisians as a chance to glide about the city looking stylish, as well as being a great new chat-up opportunity. “Bonjour, you have rented a Vélib? So have I, what a coincidence. Destiny has obviously decided that we must sleep together.”


Admittedly, this love of lifestyle does have its downside. As soon as the Vélibs were introduced, you saw impatient Parisians jostling around, trying to push in front of each other to get a bike. Because waiting is not part of their lifestyle. The person in front is preventing moi from being where moi really wants to be.


So when a chic Parisian office worker barged in front of me to get his Vélib, I knew that he wasn’t just being bad-mannered. No, he had an urgent appointment with himself and his lifestyle. It was probably imperative for him to go and sit outside a café before shutting himself away in the office. If he waited for me to fiddle around selecting my bike, he’d miss the chance to watch that new secretary walk past in her tight skirt. One of these mornings she is sure to notice him, and then who knows what will happen.


It is the city’s addiction to the moi-first lifestyle that has attracted writers to Paris for so many centuries. The average writer is, after all, even more egocentric than a Parisian. What’s more, Paris is the true home of the intellectual, a place where you can talk total arty-farty twaddle and, as long as you are passionate about it (and preferably squinting through a haze of cigarette smoke), people will actually take you seriously.


Fortunately, though, there have been plenty of brilliant writers either visiting Paris or living here, and the book you’re now holding is full of anything but twaddle, except perhaps for the samples of my own writing.


And what strikes me about reading Balzac, Flaubert, Orwell or de Beauvoir on Paris is how little the city changes. Superficially, yes ― Balzac’s heroes didn’t have to battle their way onto a metro during a travel strike — but deep down things are always the same. There are still foreigners getting mistreated in swanky kitchens exactly as George Orwell was. You can still trip over Americans like Hemingway sitting with their litre of wine on the river bank. Even some of the streets in Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris are almost unchanged, and the darker ones can certainly smell pretty medieval on a Sunday morning before the cleaners come round.


My own first visit to Paris was inspired by a book ― Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris), a novel about the often unappetizing things that went on in the city’s food market at Les Halles. Being too hard up to buy a decent guidebook, I marched off in search of the market using only the free Galeries Lafayette map they give you at the railway station, and was disappointed to discover that the glass-framed market halls had been knocked down and replaced by a hideous shopping mall about twenty years earlier.


However, as I wandered away, deep in literary mourning, I stumbled into the rue Montorgeuil and was confronted with bloody hunks of horsemeat, skinned rabbits, live lobsters and heaps of pungent mushrooms with the soil still clinging to their roots. A boulangère had set up a stall in front of her shop and was gleefully handling money and bread while sneezing into her palm with a disregard for hygiene that would have brought out the bacteria police back home. I was in Zola’s novel.


These days, people moan that the area around the rue Montorgeuil has gone posh — there is now, for example, a trendy Japanese restaurant that does mango sushi. Merde alors. But Zola would recognize the epicureanism of a street where every other business is dedicated to food. And you can still buy a baguette that has been fondled by a baker’s dubious fingers. Mango sushi, OK, but polythene bags for baguettes? Non merci!


The area of Paris where I now live has many timeless qualities to it. It’s the Butte aux Cailles. A picturesque name, I thought when I first moved in ― Quail Hill. But no, a friend explained that quail was an old word for prostitute. Apparently the hill used to be a prime cruising zone. And in a modern way, it still is. There’s a small gang of ladies who go round sticking massage ads on trees and lampposts. Hand-written, too. None of your new-fangled colour printing technology for these quails.


I often see people filling water bottles outside the Butte aux Cailles swimming pool. There is a spring beneath the hill, and a fountain where you can collect the water, free of charge. These days it is checked for purity, of course, but even so, it is a part of daily life that must go back hundred of years.


Nearby is the small local bookshop, which advertises an in-house “public writer”. No, not a resident author who will lecture you on the problems of the omniscient narrator — this is a person who writes your letters for you if you can’t spell too well yourself. What century are we in again?


And the wonderful thing is that none of this is done for tourists or because the state or UNESCO has provided a grant to ensure that future generations will always be able to witness ancient French folk customs. It is simply unchanging, everyday Paris.


There is, however, one quaint folk custom that is state-subsidized. Every year, generally in winter, the French government workers go on strike, and the nearby Place d’Italie comes alive with balloons, revolutionary songs and the fragrant odour of merguez sausages being cremated on barbecues. The atmosphere is usually very festive, with old friends meeting up and comparing banners. Last year, I went and interviewed some of them for a French TV programme, and the protesters were in a hearty mood despite the rain. I met a group of strikers from a suburb of Paris who were sitting out a shower in a café.


“How many times have you been on strike?” I asked one man.


He had a think and replied, “this year?”


Next I found a chanting Parisian social-security worker and interrupted him to ask about his all-time favourite strike or protest march. He consulted his colleagues and they decided that “it was last year, when we went to Brussels.” Yes, these demonstrations are such an integral part of their lifestyle that they even go on striking holidays.


So if you come to Paris hoping to visit some of the places mentioned in this book, and your trip is disrupted by a transport strike or protest marches, don’t be disheartened. It’s just one example of Paris imposing its lifestyle on you. All you can do is adopt the strategy I used with the Vélib queue-jumper – accept that c’est la vie and give a resigned Parisian shrug.


You don’t know how it’s done? It’s very simple. You put on a facial expression that says “what do I care, we’re all mere grains of sand in the infinite desert of the cosmos,” you imagine that a pair of overweight parrots has settled on your shoulders, and then try to lift them six inches higher without tipping them off. Get practising before you visit Paris – it’s a key exercise in all the city’s yoga classes, so you’ll have some catching up to do.


A Year in the Merde author Stephen Clarke's introduction from city-lit Paris, featuring over sixty writers on all things Parisian, £9.99, paperback, Oxygen Books