Post 4 – Une nouvelle feuille

Paris July 2011

On the back of finishing my degree in French and Spanish at Bristol University I find myself once again in the French capital, this time tucked snuggly under the wise “old” wing of one John Lichfield – 14 years as Paris correspondent to the Indpendent.

I’m his assistante for five weeks. One week in, I’m ecstatic and utterly exhausted. I’ve written about Sarko and the Queen, l’affaire DSK and Christine Lagarde, I’ve interviewed Alexander Lebedev and reversed some of my opinions on Nick Clegg.  

Internship aside, I’ve fallen for le Parc des Buttes Chaumont. It’s small and surprisingly obscure – people know of it but few seem to have been. For a city-center park les Buttes Chaumont is astonishingly undulant – which makes for serious all-terrain jogging – with the bonus challenge of dodging the dogshit. I love the exuberant greenery and ghastly mock-rock cliff-faces. It’s full of shady nooks and low, leafy passageways and the highlight to me is the odd little temple which towers above a very murky, man-made lac. Peeping through the trees from here you spy an unusual view of the back of the Sacré-Coeur basilica standing tall and brilliant white over the rooftops of Montmartre.

Being summer, there are joggeurs galore – every shape, size, sex, colour and degree of expertise! Millions of naked, screaming children and hyperactive dogs leap about in sprinklers and fake waterfalls, scattering geese and attracting pigeons. Beggars, clochards and SDFs (sans-domicile-fixe) build secluded, ramshackle shelters amongst the quiet, concealed shrubbery. Drunks convene on wooden benches to rant, rave and make merry while young West-African nannies stroll about with blond, pink-faced babies strapped to their backs or squealing in ornate prams.

I’ve heard the odd American twang and clusters of Japanese pensioners shuffle through periodically led by guides waving little yellow flags and the other day a bewlidered Scandinavian stopped me on the bridge and asked for directions to a passport-photo booth (!) but otherwise, the park seems a pretty local hang-out – and local meaning residents of the 19e arrondissement. 

Gangs of kids share joints and lovers make-out in the grass. It’s the only place so far where I’ve seen the oh-so-conservative young parisiennes shed their jeans and knee-length skirts to spread in the sunshine alarmingly unclothed! And of course there are plenty of middle-aged, leather-skinned, budgy-smuggling French gentlemen slathered in St Tropez bronzing oil.

The gates are locked at sunset. I got trapped last night and had to enlist the help of an amused young Egyptian couple to spot me as I scaled the iron railings. I’m now tempted to go back after dark with a flash-light as I’ve always been curious about nocturnal activity in city parks.

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Post 3 – Sex ed, Colombia style.

I had been in Colombia four weeks when my reprobate Dutch boss gave in to my pleading and took me to his favourite strip club. 6pm on a Wednesday. I did not anticipate a heavy night.

Medellín’s Barra Ejecutiva is located some six ‘cuadras’ from our apartment. Dusk had scarcely begun to creep in. An acidic-pink neon sign flashed lamely above the entrance to a yawning tunnel. Adriaan paused on the threshold, exchanging inaudible mutters with two grave bouncers – I later learned he had tipped them so they let me in, unconvinced as they were that I was in fact, an adult.

The passage gave way to a cavernous hall. One lonely catwalk, above which was fixed a metal frame, lead several strides into a cluster of empty aluminium tables. At the end there stood a single pole. Over the bar more neon yelped images of a heart, a dollar sign, the treble clef and a martini glass – love, liquor, money, music – what more was there to say? The place reeked beer, sweat and cheap, nasty sex.

Projected across one entire wall face was a live, local football match. We perched at a small table, Adriaan immediately swallowed into the game while I sat beady-eyed and gulping down rum . Teenage boys in baseball caps were scattered while old men hunched gazing, their jaws lax.

Females of ambiguous ages drifted – some rubbing tits and thighs against groping clients while others sat alone, gum chewing mechanically, staring through the walls. The girls are paid a meagre bonus per drink bought for them by clients. It’s therefore in their interest to drink, earning extra while soaking their souls into oblivion.

When the first girl swaggered onto the catwalk, my gut tightened. She was short and not too young, her hair a mane of glossy Obsidian. Her pretty body – slim waist and plump, doughy thighs – was clad in cheap silver latex with suspenders. She teetered on platform heels and her breasts held a softness that appeared authentic. Her placid face was blank, her eyes blinked sleepily, varnished and empty. I imagined her soul plucked out, hovering above like a wounded wasp, while the sad flesh thrashed below to Shaggy’s ‘Girl you’re my angel’. Irony so bitter, the air gagged. This girl did not dance, but writhed on auto-pilot, legs spread – ugly and frantic, gaze fixed forever far off. Her routine ended mid-song and after thrusting her naked sex into hungry faces she hobbled off-stage to stagger between tables, requesting money and alcohol. I was devastated.

The music sped up as girl two appeared. A considerable contrast to her predecessor, this woman was young and tall. She twisted with exciting ease, peeling white beaded négligée from long, caramel limbs. She tore the boys from the football until every pair of eyes was on her, a crowd of starving watchers fucking her with their minds. Though she too met nobody’s gaze, life remained behind her eyes. She had power in this arena and knew it. Her opportunity to vanquish, to be adored yet to remain untouchable, protected by her podium. Evidently a club favourite, Adriaan informed me that this girl did not “sit with customers”, maintaining a degree of self-worth and less need to drown her soul.

Session over, she slunk off the catwalk to a smatter of applause, making a swifter and more fruitful turn through the tables before disappearing behind a curtain.

Girl three stomped up in a khaki hot-pants ensemble complete with eye-masking cap and clenched jaw. She was tall and solid with broad shoulders and big thighs. Her style was furious, the popping of her hips slightly frightening and though I did not see her eyes, her face kept turning towards the football. She dropped to the floor suddenly, one leg flung awkwardly skyward to expose entire sex and ass. Adriaan, attention span waning, pulled me away before her song was up.

Working at a mediocre club in the city’s popular Candelária district will earn the girls between 20 – 30,000 pesos (approx £8) per dance, then up to 1000 per drink bought for them. They may dance three times in a night. Those who need more can take clients upstairs to special rooms for a more thorough service.

In Colombia today, one in three people infected with the HIV virus is a woman – twenty years ago this was one in thirteen.

In a nation dominated by machismo and the grip of the Catholic Church, a woman’s sexuality is frequently her only source of power. As a result, this sexuality belongs to her family, then to her husband and increasingly, to the authorities. There is vicious competition to keep a man and male infidelity is widely tolerated. Underage and unprotected sex is rife and a bafflingly attractive population of women goes to extraordinary lengths to be generically sexy.

La Guerra eterna de la mujer.

Some important and informative links worth casting an eye over:

Colombia’s principal English language news source – http://colombiareports.com/opinion/117-cantonese-arepas/7869-giving-birth-to-poverty.html

2009 Oxfam report on sexual violence against women in Colombia – http://www.oxfam.org/es/policy/violencia-sexual-colombia

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Post 2 – Beginnings – in and around Medellín

Colombia and her appealing sense of reason

‘La Piedra Del Peñol’ is a magnificent, though markedly peculiar free-standing hunk of stone. It stands in the middle of picturesque Antioquian countryside about one and a half hours drive outside Colombia’s somewhat infamous second city of Medellín.

The boulder is deceptively large and incredibly striking – at a distance it looked to me like a great, dozing guinea pig. It stands alone, soaring several hundred feet into the air, defining the landscape around it. There is not so much as a pebble exposed to match it as far as the horizon and how this hunk of rock wound up where it is resides in local legend.

La Piedra Del Peñol

A river once cut through the region but authorities had it dammed, flooding the surrounding land and leaving behind an intricate, exquisite network of threading silver rivulets, islands, inlets and lakes. The glittering water, twisting between the land, the lush vegetation and the distant highlands give impressions of a ‘land before time’.

Wealthy Paisas, among them many a drug kingpin, own expansive ‘fincas’ in the area.  They flee the city rat-race on weekends to eat hog roast, sailing yachts and jet-ski.

The Piedra itself is inevitably ‘gringo’ fly-paper. One pays a small fee and claws past the crowds of hagglers peddling plastic Jesus’, Peñol paperweights and tubs of fudge to scale the alleged 649 concrete steps that stick out conspicuously like giant, haphazard stitches stapled up the rock flank.

I relished overtaking the numerous, chubby Colombianas as they struggled upward, squeezed into too-tight jeans and tiny, teetering heels.

On the summit, a genius decided to build what can only compare to a mini mock-Edinburgh Castle. Utterly ghastly.

The views however, are spellbinding.

Antioquia

Across one of the rock faces the large letters G an L are clearly painted in white. The funny story allegedly goes as follows:

The town of Peñol used to be located nearest to its namesake. However, when the river was dammed some decades ago, the entire town relocated to higher ground, leaving the great boulder a kilometre or so closer to the next nearest town, Guatapé.

Guatapeños felt the Piedra now belonged to them and in somebody’s extraordinary wisdom they decided to lay claim to their new possession by attempting one night to sneakily paint ‘Guatapé’ in enormous white letters across the entire rock face.

How they thought they could get away with such desecration I can only imagine, but the artist was rightfully thwarted before getting further than the G and half of the U, which are all that have remained ever since.

Confounding yet brilliant logic.

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Mini-musings (random diary entries)

The Year of Internships

As placement number eight ends, I idly reflect…

I’ve been ploughing my lowly way into the chasmal ‘world of work’ for seven years now (relieved I started at 15), devotedly wading through tepid lagoons of ‘work experience’. I am a staunch believer that experience is key to achieving anything.

I recall Year 10, fearfully ‘coaching’ (emph on the commas) basketball to mentally disabled 23-year-old’s and bored to oblivion trapped in lonely 84-year-old’s council flats. Three years hell-bent on taking over the Dior empire then saw me beaver through unpaid posts from the shop-floor of Bond St boutiques to pattern-chopping and button-stitching backstage at Zandra Rhodes and trotting around after glamorous Debenham’s buyers.

Today, adamant on forging a noble course down the mine strewn highway to Journalism, I find myself dementedly keen to sop up as much first hand knowledge as possible.

This in mind, I embarked on my Year Abroad (compulsory third year sabatical for a BA in languages) with the crystaline intention to hop from one internship to the next. 12 months on and I have done what I wanted – and feel good about it! To my dismay however, fulfillment has been replaced with horrified realization that I have but smeared the squeaky surface with my grubby fist – doing only seems to highlight how much you have not yet done!

Nevertheless, I’m happy and have had a great heap of fun. I feel like I’ve exposed myself to an onslaught of information – some of which I really hope I’ll retain! And considering the economic situ, employers have made space to accommodate me.

I just want to know. I want to see for myself and then I want to tell others who were not there. That way they may be intrigued, do some research, form an opinion and spread the word. Knowledge come from experience, no? Experience and education mean knowledge. And only through knowledge can I hope to understand – and then ultimately, accept (or challenge, should needs be!).

So six months for Colombia Reports in Medellin, one month at a Parisian art gallery, three months with the French anarchist federation, a couple of spats at Le Monde Diplo & Religions, two weeks with Country & Town House magazine and two weeks with South West News – I’m shattered! It’s been brilliant.

Now to find someone who will pay me…

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Post 1 – Beginnings – Medellín impressions…

Portal de los dulces - Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

Sugar: That Sticky Devil…

Temporarily captive at a tiny table by the entrance to the busy billiards bar for over twenty minutes; vacantly sipping my cup of ‘tinto’ whilst reproaching myself for procrastination as it was high time I committed some of my initial experiences in Medellín to paper. I had long stopped concentrating on the grubby Paisa who had trapped me there with his faltering monologue on the history of the discovery of the Americas. Whilst pondering, I slowly realized (mid-way through the cup) how truly fierce my coffee was – how stingingly and hideously sweet – the subject plopped into my mind as innumerable spoonfuls had no doubt landed in my cup: sugar!

Three weeks in the Antioquian capital and I remain astonished by the Colombian lust for sugar.

It hit me the day of my arrival. I was stunned to witness our gorgeous laundry-lady silence her toddler’s whining by stuffing his cherub cheeks with a generous teaspoon of raw, white sugar – the boy’s face lit up and white crystals sprayed his little chest.

Now I did know that Latin Americans enjoy their food and that the continent has a long and complicated relationship with the sweet stuff, but I had not anticipated it to be quite such a love affair.

Moments after stepping out of my front door on that first, steamy city morning, I was struck again by a street vendor on the calle corner who was manning a stainless steel wheelie-cart on which there perched nothing less than a three-tiered, glistening, molten chocolate fondue fountain. Eagerly stabbing strawberries and grapes onto skewers, he was calling out to the 8am commuters, several of whom turned to make a b-line for him. Chuckling and salivating simultaneously, I realized I was surrounded by helpless, shameless sugar fiends.

Blessed with the tropical sun, it is unsurprising that Colombians have long relished sugar, but for centuries it was solely in the form of fruit – the sugar cane frenzy, and thus the refining process, only reached the New World with Columbus.

The fruit in Colombia is diverse and sumptuous. Medellín’s streets are lined with stalls dripping with grapes, apples, clementines and guava and it is impossible to resist the great slabs of pineapple and papaya. Small boys wheel around aquariums filled with luscious guanábana juice and cafés offer a complimentary, freshly puréed ‘jugo del día’ with every meal. Plump Paisa grandmothers squat gossiping under colourful umbrellas, beside precarious pinnacles of crimson strawberries. Fruit salad bars flourish.

The processed sugar phenomenon in Medellín however, is on another level.

There is a ‘patissería’, ‘pastelería’ or ‘deli’ located every fifty feet in any direction. Piled up into great mounds inside sticky display-cabinets, flaky filo pastries and icing coated donuts with clouds of powder sugar oozing caramel, chocolate, jam and stuffed with solid cream. On the shelves behind them sit cakes the likes of which I have never seen. Masterpieces of the grotesque…fabulous Rococo whipped-cream castles, spray painted acid orange, poisonous pink and bearing merry, lime green messages such as ‘Feliz día’ or ‘Jesus es mi mejor amigo’.

Fruity - Central Plaza, Salento, Colombia

Antioqueños dip blocks of rubbery cheese into gluey hot chocolate for breakfast and pour condensed milk over their cereal. What could be more perfect than a mid-morning break in a sunny park with a bowl of rice-pudding? Shout ‘tinto’ and half a dozen pretty girls will appear bearing flasks of venomously sweet black coffee.

Fudge and toffee or ‘dulce de leche’ are boiled up on the street in bubbling, fat drums. The vendors wrap the sweets in cling film and adorn their stalls. On a Sunday away from the city, out at the magnificent geological anomaly ‘Piedra Del Peñol’, I passed picnicking couples sharing small tubs filled with solid fudge. They spooned the stuff out in chunks and tenderly fed each other – could anything be sweeter?

Forever Young

Helados after Sunday Mass

Even the people in this glorious city look like candies. The women are gorgeous – clear, caramel skin, thick, glossy liquorice hair, aniseed eyes. They dress in the tightest, brightest, tastiest little outfits and stride about, their assets maximised, exuding sweetness and sass.

Colombian children remind me of jelly babies.

I have much yet to absorb during my six months in Colombia but what has me rapt is how such a vibrant, splendid, jovial and sweet-toothed people can be both victim and perpetrator of some of the worst civil violence in human history…

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