The train from Reims to Nancy moves in a dream-like state through the French countryside. Waves of hills and hedgerows, yellow fields of rape crop, clusters of trees on the horizon, deep greens of ripening wheat and barley.
There are low lying clouds and as the train hits them at speed they burst and fill the air with dense water. The carriage is packed but there is little noise apart from the train itself. It is blissful. And so I arrive in Nancy. The next morning, it’s time to explore.
Sometimes an unexpected walk unfolds in an unlikely and enjoyable way. Instead of heading to the UNESCO World Heritage site (usually best avoided) it’s the taking of a slower path that proves more stimulating and hopefully revealing.
It doesn’t always work. I have followed streets which have led to busy roads, sprawl, giant steel sheds selling toys for pets, housing which has become distressed by the noise and dirt of motorism, people who are frustrated and discontented, everyone driving everywhere.
Except the poor. They walk along the main roads with prams and shopping trolleys; invisible to the people who drive past to the weird new orange brick housing estates where they live, with varying levels of madness and family dysfunction. But they have an SUV, paid for by instalments, so they can have a half sense that they’ve achieved something.
It’s not clear whether this factory is still in use or not. There are broken windows in the upper floors and grass grows in the yard and the gates need a new coat of paint. There might be parts of it which are in production. Unused factories have an air of quiet desperation and sadness.
After all, they were a source of the workers income, in some cases for a whole lifetime. When the factory is closed, and they are often closed suddenly, all formal relations between the factory (capital) and the workers (labour) are discarded. This can have a devastating impact which can be difficult to articulate.
Each walk is different although there is a lot of repetition. There are some that stay as memories for a long time. It’s the feeling that one is trying to replicate. Partly this is the sense of a place; that the walk is distinctly in London or Paris or Berlin, or a particular part of London.
It’s a desire for a certain type of atmosphere that only particular streets in specific places can provide. Character and atmosphere as a product of the architecture of the buildings, the shops, the goods inside the shops, the layout of the streets, the proximity of objects and artefacts from different times now held within the current plane of time.
Part of the process of the creation of Capital is to homogenise objects (including buildings) and this has created identical nodes of concrete-as-capital in the ever expanding space of anon-a-town.
It’s the same pixelated advertising of the same pixelated people living in the same concrete-as capital-is concrete blocks of anon-a-town. Such places manage to simultaneously be nodes of capital investment and concentrations of debt. Profit and loss swirl around in an endless dance of death.
I’m walking along the Avenue Carnot which leads into the Avenue Foch which leads into Avenue General Leclerc. de which is a long road running east out of Nancy. I could walk along this road all day. Just to see where it goes. With no thought on how I might get back or food or drink or money or anything like that. An elderly man is walking slowly along the pavement towards me. For some reason he stops and I realise that it’s to let a runner pass us. He follows her with his eyes and then says something. It always takes a moment or two for me to work out what people have said in French and he is on his way again before I realise he said something along the lines of ‘nice bottom’.
Outside the Eglise Saint Livier in Saint Max there are two or three market stalls. I think people might be raising money for the church. Some books, home made cakes, jars of honey, second hand clothes, crockery and biscuit tins. That sort of stuff. An elderly woman walks up to a Black guy who’s sitting on a wall with a friend drinking beer from a bottle. He stands up, smiling at her and they shake hands and immediately start some funny banter with each other. In the church, the organ is being tuned and I listen to the range of sounds until the two men involved are satisfied they have done enough for the day. I start the walk again.
On the other side of the street there is what looks like a charity shop – (do they have such things in France?) or a second hand shop. Outside is a box which invites people to help themselves. A man is feeling the quality of a cream coloured blanked which he then puts into a light blue shopping trolley. And then some plates and finally a golden coloured cup. Perhaps its the Holy Grail.
A beat up green Citroen pulls up. A fairly wild looking man with black hair sprouting out of unexpected places jumps out, leaving the door open and the key in the ignition. Does he want me to steal it? Will this help with some insurance claim.
‘Bonjourno!’ he shouts out but I don’t catch his eye so it’s not addressed to me. A woman with a mohican haircut has appeared from somewhere. Now he shouts out ‘Bonjour!’ and somehow he does catch my eye and he puts his arm around the woman and they both pose and he suggests I take their picture. I really wish I had.
This quite street is the Rue de President Salvador Allende and has rows of houses that could be part of Ernst May and Ludwig Landmann’s Neue Frankfurt. I’m wondering how this has come about. Are the modernist-socialist design of the houses and the street name the work of the same town hall committee?
Any attempt to build housing outside the parameters of rising land values, private-profit development and the weakening of tenants rights eventually leads to attacks from the right. The mass public housing built in Germany and Vienna in the 1920s was hated by the right and some of that right became fascists. There is no doubt that any attempt at the mass building of good quality low cost housing in either Britain or the United States would have similar reactions. Which doesn’t mean we don’t support such building; but it does mean we need to have the means and politics to defend it.
While I’m walking passed some big bourgeois houses from the end of the nineteenth century they spark off a thought about the differences between capital then and capital now. Capital is ever getting bigger. It’s much bigger now that it was in the 1890s or the 1920s. Figures such as the volume of world trade express this, or the size of the stock markets or the holdings of the banks and the size of the wealth funds which are being managed.
As Capital expands it needs bigger opportunities for investment. Hence the proliferation of high rise buildings. These are among the shapes of Capital, what Capital actually looks like; tall, box-like, an endless repetition across all four walls of the same glass panels, repetition on each floor of the same layout and design. Because Capital is now so much bigger and must be sunk into ever bigger projects, in construction this means ever bigger buildings. And this demands engineering, not design solutions.
My feet ache but it will be worth going to the market in the centre of town before I go back to where I’m staying. This is a proper market hall with butchers, fishmongers, grocers, delicatessens and much more. There is something in a jar but I don’t think it’s cassoulet. I ask the woman who runs the place. She gets out her phone and types away. She shows it to me. Choucroute Garnie, with sauerkraut. I get my phone out and use ‘translate’ to ask her how to cook it. She prods away at her phone again. She shows me the screen, ‘in a pan’. I’ll try it.
The grocers I decide to use lets the customer choose their own fruit and veg. I pick up a large green lettuce. I was going to buy some satsumas but the second and third ones I picked up were so squashy I put my fingers through the peel. I discreetly returned them to the tray with the others.
I didn’t do much better with tomatoes. The first one I picked up more or less fell to bits in my hand. I did eventually find three that were reasonably firm. I handed these over to be weighed, along with some fresh garlic and a lemon. This all came to 11.37 euros. I handed 12 euros to the woman who seemed to be an assistant.
This was the easy bit. But she obviously couldn’t count. She spent ages re-arranging some coins in her hand and turning them over. The other person working was serving someone else. This was at ten to two. I wasn’t in a hurry so I decided that I wouldn’t say anything for at least an hour. Perhaps at ten to three I would ask if my change was ready. I made preparations for a detailed study of the market hall and all within it. Eventually my change was checked, there was one more turning of a coin and it was handed to me with a lovely smile.
A small dog looks up at me from the pavement and I lean down to say hello, ‘Parlev vous Anglais?’, I ask, it’s like a Scottish Terrier, white with a black collar. It looks at me and wags its tail. The little dog’s owner says, ‘non’. There’s a bit of confusion here. One of his eyes is closed, perhaps he’s lost it, and the other swivels around. He is poorly dressed and I think in a poor state of mental health. But he has a very kind manner and he uses up all his English words and I use up all my French words and together we said quite a lot.
He starts to shuffle off with the little friendly dog beside him. And then he turns and says with a huge smile, ‘Bon Weekend!’.
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