Cities are strange, mutant creatures, with multiple hearts. After all, where is the heart of New York? Is it midtown? Downtown? The Village? Harlem? It all depends on who you are, I suppose. So it is with Paris. Trendy Left Bankers will probably think of St.-Germain or perhaps somewhere in the Fifth, around Luxembourg, whereas their children might talk about Montparnasse. Rich, trendy Right Bankers will think of the businesses on the Champs Élysées, while rich, non-trendy, stuffy Right Bankers will think of the various neighborhoods in the 16th, and artistic Right Bankers will probably think of Montmartre or someplace in the Ninth. (A brief aside: For those who have no idea what I’m talking about with all these numbers, Paris is divided into 20 “arrondissements,” which are themselves divided into myriad more-or-less-official neighborhoods.)
But there is an inarguable point of view that states that the true center of the city is, well, in the center, or at least near it. Historically, Paris has been centered on the Isle de la Cité, and just north of the island is the Centre Georges Pompidou, an enormous inside-out building that sports its plumbing on its exterior in the form of bright red and blue pipes and girders and things.
The Centre Pompidou squats at the bottom of a broad, sloping plaza that reaches from the rue St.-Martin (which was the main north-south thoroughfare in Paris during the Middle Ages) to the center’s doors. This plaza is a kind of free, permanent outdoor theater, a modern Cour des Miracles where just about everybody imaginable comes to mix together in a riotous hubbub of art and music and street performances.
The plaza is Carnegie Hall for French street performers. It is the tops, the ultimate, the place with the biggest and most difficult crowd of all. The most coveted spot is about halfway down, on the right (as you face the Pompidou Center), primarily because there is another plaza that does not slope down, but runs along the right side, forming a kind of extended terrace, with a railing upon which people can lean and look down on the performers. This means that the “orchestra” spectators can sit on the cobblestone slope of the main plaza, while the “balcony” spectators can hang out on the right, making for a nice crowd and a vague impression that you’re at a modern equivalent of a Roman amphitheater.
However, it’s a safe bet that Roman amphitheaters had no performers like the Crazy Dreadlocked Percussionist. The Crazy Dreadlocked Percussionist sometimes plays the Beaubourg Plaza (note: the French call this whole area Beaubourg, after the old neighborhood), although his performances are sporadic at best. He has a kind of pushcart, with various accoutrements sticking out of it, which he bangs on with his drumsticks. None of these things were originally intended to be instruments, and they make an unholy racket. He pays homage to his racket by dancing around, his dreadlocks shaking. This is very impressive, since his dreadlocks are the kind that stand up, making his head look like a cross between a frightened hedgehog and a mop. Throughout it all, one cannot help but notice the banana hanging on a string from a metal rod extending above his pushcart, and one cannot help but wonder what, exactly, he is going to do with it. Well, this is the highlight of the show, the central theme, as it were, and the inspiration of his only lyrics, because after a while, the Crazy Dreadlocked Percussionist will holler, “Banana!,” in English, and then whack the banana once with a stick. In itself, this makes no noise, or at least none that can be heard by the spectators, but as of the third or fourth whack, it does make an interesting visual effect, since the banana explodes in a gooey mess. Once this is accomplished, the show is over, and the Crazy Dreadlocked Percussionist moves on to wherever he moves on to.
The Crazy Dreadlocked Percussionist is one of the more surreal acts at the Beaubourg Plaza. More often than not, the show tends toward the theatrical or acrobatic. Entire theater troupes have put on shows there, often drawing audience members into the act. Recently, my son and I watched five young circus performers juggle a whole mess of balls and pins and things while conducting a kind of dance with a big wooden pole, all this alternating with musical interludes played on a variety of instruments. As we left, the next act was warming up—some guy with a really tall unicycle.
Musicians play the plaza as well, but they don’t make up as large a proportion of the performers as at other hot street-performance venues, such as the plaza in front of the Orsay Museum or, especially, in front of the steps of Sacré Cœur. Beaubourg is more for the performance artist. Sometimes, you’ll even find modern dance. There aren’t many cities where you can collect money by performing modern dance in the street.
On the top of the plaza, running along the rue St.-Martin, are sketch artists doing portraits and caricatures for the passersby, who are glad to sit still for the requisite time, watching the performers below. Behind them are shops that sell postcards, posters, and, yes, the occasional cheesy Eiffel Tower model or “Paris” pen. Nearer to the Pompidou Center itself are human statues, holding as still as possible in the hope that you’ll drop some money in front of them. The latest trend seems to be for them to dress up as Egyptian sarcophagi, with gold-colored masks over their faces. I think that’s cheating, since they assumedly can wiggle their noses and stuff under there. But then, I’m no judge of human statues.
Next to the Centre Pompidou, just to the south of it, in fact, is the world’s most fun fountain. This fountain was designed by Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely, and it celebrates the work of Igor Stravinsky. The fountain is a large basin with all kinds of cool things in it, most of them spitting water (although some just churn the water around, or spin in it and make little waves). There are 15 things in all, many of them (primarily those designed by de Saint Phalle) brightly colored constructions made out of resin. The others, primarily those by Tinguely, are more mechanical—machines that make a great effort to do their spitting and churning.
If you ever have to meet someone in Paris, this fountain is a great place to set up a rendezvous. For one thing, if you’re late, the person can hang out at one of the cafés next to it, or simply stand and watch it. The fountain can provide a lot of entertainment. Furthermore, you can tell a great deal about a person by asking them which of the 15 things is their favorite. Will it be the big red lips? Or perhaps the scorpionlike machine? Maybe the elephant, or the little spirally thing that goes around and around, or maybe even the blue hat. I confess that I’m not exactly sure what you can tell about a person from their answer, but I’m convinced it’s highly significant. A kind of watery Rorschach test.
If you find this beneath you, then feel free to set up your trysts at the Café Beaubourg, which is one of the trendiest places in the city. Last I was there (someone had told me to meet him there—which I regretted; I would have much preferred the fountain), it was all a mess because of some fashion shoot. An anorexic woman was twirling around for a black-clad photographer while the waiters tried to maneuver around those umbrella things that photographers use. One shouldn’t have to wait too long for a $10 cup of coffee.
Parisians were quite upset when the Centre Pompidou was built, primarily because it’s so damn ugly. However, it does grow on you, and when all is said and done, Beaubourg is a strange, avant-garde, artistic kind of neighborhood anyway, so a strange avant-garde building in the center of it perhaps is not so out of place. And it should also be said that the ostensible reason why the building was designed this way was to save space inside of it, and the inside is certainly full of space. It’s interesting space, too. The building houses a museum of modern art, as well as all kinds of cultural and educational resources … which people really do use. It also tends to be not anywhere near as crowded with tourists as is the Louvre or the Quai d’Orsay. (A brief aside: My wife’s grandfather used to carry luggage at the Quai d’Orsay back when it was still a train station.)
In the end, though, despite all of the interesting things inside the Centre Pompidou, the most interesting spectacle is outside of it, on the plaza. Next time you’re in Paris, stop by and watch.