Sometimes when the winter wind streams in from the North East I can imagine that I’m in Russia’s Stalingrad and not the one in Paris. Paris’s Stalingrad lies on the boundary that marks the divide between the 10th and 19th arrondissements. It’s near the place where the Canal St. Martin changes its name and becomes the Canal de L’Ourq. There’s a huge roundabout at Stalingrad that confuses everyone – and above it grey steel girders support the over-ground section of the metro line that arcs and curves away like a plume of metal smoke towards Republique and Bastille.
It’s December and terribly cold. I turn my coat to the wind and walk up the Avenue de Flandre towards the Rue Riquet. It’s Saturday morning. By the time I get to the Rue Riquet my nose is stinging as are my ears; it’s really cold. I think of the frost-bitten soldiers who, years ago, were trapped in Stalingrad. Trapped without hope.
In the Rue Riquet I reach my destination. It’s something called the Emmaus Defi and it was set up by a strange French figure – a semi-icon – called the Abbe Pierre. He was a worker-priest and apart from being esteemed in France for his good deeds he also acquired fame for his hair-cut. There’s a learned essay about the hair-cut of Abbe Pierre. The essay explores his resistance to style – so it’s about his choice of a non-haircut. Or rather, it’s about the impossibility of not having some sort of hairstyle. The Abbe Pierrre had the style of a non-style.
Every Saturday, starting at 10 in the morning, the charity that the Abbe Pierre founded opens its doors in a large open-plan space in the Rue Riquet and sells a great variety of things – such as furniture, bric-a-brac, old stereo systems, books, kitchen utensils and so on. I’d gone to try and find a chair to replace one that had been broken – and to look for Christmas Presents.
I was too late to find the chair that I wanted.
But I did find an old thermos flask. It was made in the 1960s. It still had its original label. The label was rather worn but its gold edging made the whole thing look optimistic and honest – in a strangely naïve kind of way. The thermos flask was in the colours we used to have back in the old psychedelic days. It was flame orange – exactly the same colour that I’d once painted two walls of my living room. It brought back a host of happy memories. The rest of the flask was edged in burnt umber and there was a fawn coloured cup from which to drink. I bought the retro thermos flask for 3 euros.
Out on the street I was hit once again by the bitter wind. And as I walked back down the Avenue de Flandre towards Stalingrad I couldn’t help thinking once again of the poor stranded soldiers, thinking of their icy hopelessness, and wondering if any of them might have had a thermos flask to help ease the pain of dying.