Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sparrows of the Salon du Thé - La Grande Mosquée in Paris...

Peer closely, and you will see one of the sparrows synonymous with the salon du thé, which is an annexe of the Grande Mosquée in the 5th arrondissement of Paris.

The site is just opposite the Jardin des Plantes and is a beautiful place for a pause, with a mint tea and some Oriental pâtisseries.

Be under no illusion; you will not be alone in this. The whole establishment draws in Parisians and tourists alike, from very different backgrounds, in very impressive numbers!

It is indeed incredibly popular and yet does not pander or privilege any particular clientele. The emphasis seems to be on traditional rather than trendy.

There is no distracting music, there are numerous tables but the atmosphere is not loud or intrusive, the waiters are smart but in no way haughty.

Alongside the exterior garden-patio salon du thé, just belond the arches, you can enter the restaurant itself, where the menu offers typical North-African dishes.

Otherwise, there is a covered interior patio, complete with fountain... And those strikingly vibrant tiles.

And of course, the key visitors - those jaunty little birds - whose crumb-seeking maurauding knows no bounds.

These cheeky sparrows fly in an out of the restaurant shamemlessly, bobbing around the salon, busy in the trees and bushes, flitting between tables on a mission. For these feathered felons are ever-ready to relieve you of some morsel, be that from you plate or directly off your fork! Or rather, they were... 

Indeed, on my last two trips to the salon, I noticed that a dramatic change had taken place. There was not a bird to be seen - anywhere. Just as I was about to inquire, a smug-looking cat sauntered past with such nonchalence that any lingering doubts were put to rest.

The cat in question resolutely refused to acknowledge me in any way and did not deign to turn round, intent as it was on lapping water. Hmm, no need to wonder why this visitor had developped such a thirst. And yes, all the above photos, with sparrows, are in fact old!

La Grande Mosquée (built - 1926)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Zillions of Zinnia at the Jardin des Plantes, Paris..

Be they insect, animal or human, all visitors to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris are offered the beautiful spectacle of extensive avenues of flower beds that run the length of the grounds. Mid-September was no exception.

The sun was amazingly bright on the afternoon that I walked through the gardens that were themselves aflame with colours from the vibrant Zinnia.

This resiliant little plant belongs to the daisy family - asteraceae and compositeae - yet manages to present itself in many forms, thanks to hybridization. Today, there are more than 100 cultivars and the Jardin des Plantes seemed to have endless varieties on display.

Although early varieties of the Zinnia have graced European gardens since the 18th century, the plant is in fact a native of Mexico. The Aztecs labelled the vibrant flowers mal de ojos ('pain to the eyes') due to their intense colours.

The plant is named after the German botanist, Johann Zinn (1727-1759), but benefits from a whole host of names, used to describe the variations in form and colouration,of the many different series...

Indeed, there is the Zahara series, the Peter Pan, Ruffles, Queen Lime, Dahlia, amongst many others... And Zinnia is known for the many ways in which the flower petals are laid out, with quill-leaf forms, spiders, stars and daisies, domes and buttons. Also, the body of the plant bears characteristically long, sturdy stems...

Given its natural resilience that enables the plant to cope with harsh weather extremes, it has, not surprisingly, been taken as a symbol of endurance. Last year, zinnia were even rumoured to have germinated and flowered in the International Space Station, yet this claim was soon dismissed. On a more down-to-earth front, in the Victorian language of flowers, Zinnia represented the lasting affection toward absent friends.

Well, I was unable to take a photo free of the very numerous visitors, who, like me were enjoying this magnificent setting on a radiant September day. Instead, here is another from another tiime; different flowers (poppies!) but same incredible views, facing the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle .

Monday, September 25, 2017

Is Containment Contentment? The Panther...

North-Chinese Leopard
I recently returned to the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and there I saw the magnificent cats, pacing their cages in much the manner described by the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1878-1926), over a hundred years ago, when he wrote The Panther.

Today, there are no panthers such as the one observed by Rilke, in the Ménagerie. The largest beasts which had drawn in such crowds from the institution's creation in the 18th century - elephants, girafes, bears, hippopotami, rhinoceros, and of course, the big cats, to name but a few - have slowly been rehoused since the latter part of the 20th century. Zoos better able to meet the needs of these animals could thus satisfy the demands for a more humane approach to their confinement and well-being therein.

Nevertheless, smaller species of the panthera family still remain. And so it is that the snow leopard and the clouded leopard continue to haunt their enclosures, pacing continually. The exotic forms of these creatures ever sweep past a captive audience; we captors.Their soft padding movement, up and down, literally flattens a path that traces their motion, their automation only interrupted when the odd movement in a nearby enclosure catches their attention.

In a flash of feline energy, the animal instinct, dulled but never deadened, surges and the beast is transformed into its ancestral self; panthera - 'predator of all animals'.

Façade from art-déco Fauverie - 1937 -  René Berger
It is able to leap upwards instantaneously, when it so wishes. But in a cage devoid of any real activity, why would it be so inclined?

I am not against zoos as such. Man's madness has driven so many species of the animal kingdom to extinction that any means must be employed to maintain their mere survival, in many cases.

Snow Leopard
The Ménagerie obviously cares about, and takes good care of, all its charges, of that there can be absolutely no doubt. Proof of that also comes in the form of a newly-born North-Chinese leopard cub...

And yet the life of these big felines is one of containment and confinement. They may well be alive, but this is no life. Seeing the vital spark that can still be ignited by the simple sight of potential prey - here a neighbouring caracal family - you can only wonder why some form of virtual stimulation has not been invented for their use. Tiger, tiger burning bright... 

In short, as much as I was stunned by the proximity of these beautiful beasts, I truly felt sick at such a sight. The portrait of 'weary vision' and 'ritual dance' that Rilke painted was there in front of me, in the heart of Paris, in the 21st century. The Ménagerie has much evolved since Rilke's visit there, and yet the situation of some of its charges has changed little, or rather not enough. In his book Awakenings, the great Oliver Sacks wrote of the patients afflicted with Encephalitis Lethargica.
            "they registered what went on about them without active attention, and with profound 
             indifference. They neither conveyed nor felt the feeling of life; they were as insubstantial
             as ghosts, and as passive as zombies."

The scene below, from the film based on the book, Awakenings, even refers back to Rilke's Panther.

Unlike the other members of the Panthera family, the snow leopard cannot roar, and so it is literally silent in its confinement, unable to give voice to its existence.

                                             The Panther

                 His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
                 has grown so weary that it cannot hold
                 anything else. It seems to him there are
                 a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

                 As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
                 the movement of his powerful soft strides
                 is like a ritual dance around a center
                 in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

                 Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
                 lifts, quietly--. An image enters in,
                 rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
                 plunges into the heart and is gone. 
                 Rainer Maria Rilke (translation Stephen Mitchell)