More Reading for Remainers

After the purge of a house move, the books that survive are in a random state. The lucky ones are shelved, but many lie in boxes only to be liberated if I think they may contain something I want. Flung aside they sit in jumbled piles on the floor, like the shifting  borders of mainland Europe. The boxes were labelled, but it turns out not precisely enough: “Fiction” could be anything from Jane Austen to Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The muddle does mean I unearth unexpected gems when I scrabble through, and some are from mainland Europe.

austen-to-zafonIf I wasn’t British I’d probably possess more books not written in my mother tongue or by non British authors. Other nations buy far more translated writing than we do, in part because their publishing industries risk more, and their authors do sometimes write in a second language.(Think of Conrad, Nabokov, Yann Martel, Eva Hoffman.)

Beata Bishop’s One Spoilt Spring 51gbphv3w7l-_sx373_bo1204203200_(I’m providing the US link showing the wonderful dustjacket) was written in English and published by Faber in 1960. Beata Bishop was a Hungarian who became a BBC journalist and her novel tells of a young woman involved in the resistance against the Nazis in Budapest. Of many works about Eastern Europe under the Nazis, probably the best known by a UK author is Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, filmed by the BBC as “The Fortunes of War”. But Bishop gives us the story from the Hungarian point of view. Sadly, this quote reflects much of Hungarian reality  today: “…every second person around her was a potential victim, certain to be persecuted the moment the political situation deteriorated.”

Also from Hungary, The Door was written by Magda Szabo in 1986 and translated in 1995. It’s the strange tale of the relationship between a writer and her employee, the difficult, disturbed, faithful Emerence. Where Bishop focussed on one season of one year, Szabo the-door-szabogradually reveals Emerence’s whole life story, during the siege of Budapest, the Nazi invasion and then under communism. Emerence is controlling and disagreeable, has suffered appallingly and through a mixture of hoarding and giving, withholding and nurture, is trying to make sense of a life smashed up, just as the book tries to make sense of ageing. The image of the door, kept locked, forced open, welcoming or rejecting, may be unsubtle on a psychoanalytical level, but it’s powerful enough to act as another character in the narrative. This is not a book for the faint hearted, but there is a dream like quality to the long sentenced prose. I remember thinking it wonderful but on returning to it for this post I was repelled: it’s one of those books, like Kafka perhaps or Stefan Zweig that meets your emotions  with a slug of uncomfortable recognition so you need all your strength to read it.

Sándor Márai was another Hungarian whose Embers, translated by Carol Brown Janeway embers(Penguin, 2003) is also a poetic, elegiac exploration of memory and age. I found it a delight to read – no, “delight” is too diaphanous a word, but a pleasure, with beautifully translated cadences and always enough simplicity to leaven the description. A look online showed me it breeds poetry in the readers too; I’ve seldom found such beauty and feeling in a set of reviews. (The reviews are polarized through: there’s some viciously expressed dislike, along the lines of ‘how dare you waste my time when you know I wanted a plot?’) And yet more doors: “Door latches gave off the traces of a once-trembling hand, the excitement of a moment long gone, so that even now another hand hesitated to press down on them.”

Shall we go somewhere warmer? Most of the modern Spanish fiction I’ve read has been in bringasSpanish, but my language skills aren’t up to the verbosity of the classics. That Bringas Woman  is a wonderful portrait of sycophantic upper class society in 1860s Madrid. Never have aristocrats appeared such dinosaurs. Condemned in their pointless lives to ever greater display and unable to pay for it, their economic model should be unsustainable. Rosalia the heroine is forced into finding unpleasant solutions to the conundrum. This is dense and detailed but well translated with a helpful introduction and notes, which will appeal to anyone who enjoyed Madame Bovary, Vanity Fair, Balzac or Dickens (although it’s much shorter). A detail that stayed with me years after reading it was the minutely described fashion for sewing pictures using the hair of loved ones instead of thread. Yes, you did read that correctly.

In my childhood home, there were many stories about Italy, then even more starkly divided into sophisticated North and poverty stricken South than now. I read Danilo Dolci’s To Feed the Hungry, a classic collection of interviews with Sicilians. Bread and Wine (revised 1955) by Ignazio Silone and Christ stopped at Eboli (1946) by Carlo Levi (also filmed) were both by opponents of Fascism living in internal exile.

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The opening pages of Christ Stopped at Eboli

The modern classic The Leopard (1958, also filmed by Visconti) by Guiseppe di Lampedusa begins during the Garibaldi uprising of 1860 but remains informative about the workings of Sicilian society today. In the 1970s and 1980s there was an outpouring of films to complement these books: The Tree of Wooden Clogs, set in Lombardy, Padre Padrone (Sardinia), Cinema Paradiso (Sicily again) heralded two decades earlier by Fellini’s La Strada. In some ways, with the publication of Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan novels, little has changed: we read of tumultuous, crime ridden, sun baked volcanic places whose inhabitants struggle with gross passions and strong, crude morals. Characters of great delicacy and potential do appear in all the works I’ve referred to, but it has to be said that the more brutish features prevail. Ferrante’s popularity, despite her often difficult, intense prose, suggests these are archetypes, and indeed one of her Communist activist characters quotes Dolci. (My daughter who recently lived in Palermo as part of her Italian degree, tells me they are less popular in Italy than in Anglophone countries, which may be because the mirror held up is hardly flattering.)

As long as there is no Dexit, Denmark remains a member of the EU. What a pleasure to unearth Peter Høeg’s Miss Smila’s Feeling for Snow (1992). (This seems to be available in two differently titled translations.) Høeg taught me about the quiet crime novel, no less menacing for the intelligent, controlled nature of its excitement. If it isn’t too much of a contradiction, it’s narratively rich in colourlessness, noiselessness, isolation and loneliness. Miss Smilla also provides an introduction to minority ethnic Greenlanders. The film of the same name did it justice, I thought, and may have been what inspired all those BBC4 Scandi noir commissions..

Finally, anyone who’s enjoyed listening to Mac the Knife, and been led from there to the The Threepenny Opera, will appreciate The Threepenny Novel by Bertolt Brecht (1934). It’s witty, exuberant, cruel and sharp like the stage work and the prose rattles along like  a Berlin tram. If you want ways to tell modern bankers what you think of them, consult Brecht! Much more cheerful, if decadent and cynical, than the last item in that particular box, which I don’t have the courage to reread but which shaped my early ideas of justice and equality when I was a teenager. Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, originally written in French about Ernie Levy, the designated “just man” of his generation, who died at Auschwitz in 1943.

This was of necessity a random selection. A few more months, a few more open boxes and who knows where we’ll travel on the blog? Or maybe it would save disturbing them if I go browsing for some more recent titles.

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

Viva Virago!

Who loves the dark green elegance and quality of Virago Modern Classics? They took paperback design to a new level but not just the design, also the content. I didn’t realise how much their publication matched my own coming of age as a reader, until I caught a BBC4 documentary about them on iplayer (at the time of posting this is available for 12 more days).

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Beautiful covers

In the 1970s and 80s I worked in academic holidays in my father’s bookshop, usually in paperbacks. I know there are conventions nowadays about how specific genres should look, but in fact it was easier then to second guess a book by its cover. Picadors – loved by hippies, tending towards fantasy and allegory – were white and seemed taller. Penguin Modern Classics were a pale grey with fine art reproductions on the front. (My career aim at 17 was to emulate Germano Facetti, their designer. What better job than reading books, then searching in art galleries for pictures to represent them? Naively I thought that was all it amounted to, but biographical material about him shows there was a lot more to it.) Penguin Classics were mostly black, crime green, modern fiction had an orange spine. A brick shaped book with a shiny cover was probably  down market, an “airport novel”., especially if it had gold or silver lettering. Sphere books were thin, printed on cheap paper with narrow margins. Everyman Classics were accessible hardback editions of wonderful works, cheaper even than Penguins and so kept with paperback ranges.

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But when Virago Modern Classics came along, initially shelved alphabetically with the rest of the fiction and then on a special revolving display stand of their own, they upped the ante. We tried to keep them facing outwards because they were so beautiful – an astute marketing exercise as well as (at the time) a revolutionary concept. The BBC4 programme tells me the art director of Virago actually did do what I thought Germano Facetti did: browsing in art galleries (fun) and establishing copyright ownership of the pictures she wanted to use, or could afford (not fun). Virago (initially called Spare Rib press like the magazine that started the same year) had already existed since 1972 when they began the Modern Classics imprint in 1978. Their first books were non fiction feminist history and sociology – now themselves classics. Our daughters have much to thank them for.

Why was Virago needed? These three statements give an idea. Carmen Callil, the founder, quotes from the New Yorker: “Women generally – especially women writers – have no use for destiny. They wouldn’t compose a Hamlet if they could.” She remembers the Inland Revenue’s header on her tax return: “If you have a husband, this form is addressed to him.” Margaret Atwood quotes a letter to Alice Munro: “Well, you might be a good short story writer but I wouldn’t go to bed with you.” 

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Publishing was a man’s world – my literary agent, who started work for WH Allen in the 1980s, remembers women only present as secretaries. Although my father’s bookshop was a place of liberal debate, he also for a time banned female members of staff from wearing trousers (he found the shape of one member of staff displeasing). Despite Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, it was harder for women to get published and once published, harder for them to remain in print. Their books were considered of less value, parochial, unimportant. Virago – whose first offices were above a massage parlour in Soho’s Wardour Street – changed all that.

virago-smithConsider the names published by Virago: Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Michele Roberts, Sarah Waters, Linda Grant, Maya Angelou… These were and are contemporary writers, but  Virago also rehabilitated many fading gems: Rosamund Lehmann who wrote delicately of unwanted pregnancy; Susan Ferrier who wrote in 1818 (!) and Mary E Braddon (1862) of unhappy marriage. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)and Emily Holmes Coleman (1930) put postnatal depression and insanity at the heart of their fiction. On a lighter note, did you know that Dodie Smith of The Hundred and One Dalmatians fame also produced the enchanting I Capture the castle? You have a treat in store!

The lists (fiction and non fiction) were diverse: Paule Marshall wrote of a Barbadian girl growing up in New York (1959) and Zhang Jie of life in 1970s China. Amrit Wilson threw a stone into a rippling pond with Finding a Voice, about the lives of Bangladeshi women in the East End (1978). Maya Angelou was published in the US in 1969, but UK publishers showed no interest until Virago took up I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1984 and had an immediate huge bestseller. In 2001 Virago as part of the Little, Brown group published the Somalian model Waris Dirie’s memoir Desert Flower, one of the first books to describe what was then called female circumcision.

During various house moves, I jettisoned books. Some I don’t regret: at a certain point the greasy yellow mustiness of old books becomes unpleasant. I’m interested to find the few Women’s Press editions I’ve kept have lasted better than most, pages still quite white and crisp, and the covers of the Viragos have withstood time better than the insides (I’m sneezing from musty spores as I type this). But I’m sorry now that I threw some of them out and I keep my charity shop eye open for replacements. Watching Carmen Callil, the indefatigable founder of Virago, climb ladders in her elegant late seventies to run her finger along the spines of her collection, I feel very jealous. Do visit the Virago website for details of all 687 Modern Classics and their other lists. And do watch the documentary while you can – the nostalgic enjoyment of writing (and hopefully reading) this blog post wouldn’t have been possible without it. It’s not only about nostalgia though: long may Virago continue to give women a voice and let’s hope it’s heard in the White House.

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©Jessica Norrie 2016

Losing the plot

Six weeks ago I was in Japan, loving it so much I thought I could teach English there if I ran low on funds. I also have plans for Iceland, Cuba, India, Sri Lanka….

On Wednesday 2nd Nov, my horizons narrow. It’s a beautiful autumn day. Trees glow, low sun brushes everything gold. I drive to Epping Forest for a walk. The forest is almost luminous on this shining day. Most trees still have most leaves, but there’s already a crisp carpet of brown, red and yellow on the forest floor. Shuffling through is as fun now as it was in childhood, but we walk fast: it’s only 10am and the temperature is invigorating.

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Connaught Water, Epping Forest. Photo by Nikkii Barnett.

It’s the end of the year but the springtime of my ideas: the novel to which I’ve been doggedly adding 1000 words a day for the past month is taking good shape. Striking details and major plot threads form in my mind as I pace along the paths. Part of me can’t wait to get home and start putting them down – black for phrases to be added to my draft, red for ideas to be developed later.

Under the coating of leaves my foot hits a stump and over I swoop in an arc too fast to correct. My chin and nose make contact with the wooden edge of a footbridge and I’m sitting dazed on the floor with blood pouring from my mouth and nostrils. People pass tissues, but my shaking hands drop them on the dirt and others are soaked immediately. A lady with a pushchair offers baby wipes which sting my mouth clean. Somebody strokes my back, moaning “Oh Lord, oh my dear Lord“.

Behind me: “You’ll be on soup for the next few days, Jessica!” and “I knew a woman who fell that way and cracked a rib.” (OH Lord, oh my dear Lo…ord.) A third: “You need to sit in a long hot bath.” I love long hot baths but I think if I sat in one now I might faint and never get out.

I’m pulled to my feet and it feels more normal to be vertical. As I walk shakily along I only want to look at the ground. I’m aware of people staring but if I concentrate on small talk with my kind companion – who turns out to have been battling serious illness, bless her – then I’ll get back to the car park for the next decision.

Meanwhile I think, if I could get ice on this now….oh goodness what does my face look like..have I broken my nose? is that tooth in the right place? have I bitten through my lip? Blood drips on the top I bought at Tokyo airport (why am I wearing that?) I drive home followed by a volunteer, cautious as on my test.

I make hot sweet tea but can’t fit my lips round the mug. The wine sleeve I find in the freezer and hold against my face warms too fast (no wonder the Chablis is never cold enough). I try a huge packet of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel and the immediate numbness is a swipe of relief. I want to be left alone to mourn my face, the ruin of my day and all those ideas for the novel that seem to have trickled away with the lost blood. I lie with another old towel to protect the new cushions of the new sofa in the sunlit bay window in blissful agony enjoying the quiet hiatus.

B. arrives. He can’t believe our local hospital.What a maze of potholed paths, temporary huts, hulking arches, the derelict nurses home sulking in a corner. It was boarded up at least ten years ago. Somewhere in the mess is A & E, though it’s not where it was last time I visited, with my teenage son after he was mugged, and that location was different to the time before, when as a toddler he stuck a bead up his nose.

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At poor beleaguered Whipps Cross pedestrians have to watch their footing and the buildings have always looked sinister. But the staff delivered my children safely and have always come through in an emergency, despite funding that always goes elsewhere, reports of submerged morale, closure threats that ebb and flow and an ever increasing  patient pool.

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The nurses’ home

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At reception they say: “Gosh, you’ve made a mess of yourself!” which is gratifying as it means we’re not time wasters.I’m number 297; it’s midday and crowded. Most people are patient (sorry) and quiet. A couple with a two year old give her juice and crisps which she spills on the floor. She gathers them up with care and returns them to the packet. She is noisy, through boredom. They look at their phones and erupt about the wait: “For fuck’s sake!”

I’m called in. “How are you?” Well, obviously, I’ve been better. I’ll need stitches, preceded by the same injections given before Botox. Now I know for sure I’ll never have Botox: they’re as unpleasant as I was warned they’d be. I grip the metal bar of the couch and squirm and the surgeon who is kind but brisk says, Well done, well done.

Eat sweet cereal for glucose, she says. Then sleep. Don’t clean your teeth. Use a salt water rinse even if it stings. Oh, you’d better have a tetanus jab. I stand as though I’ve been punished in a corner of the empty room waiting for the nurse with the jab. I’m so cold I can’t control my shivers. See your dentist, they say. As we leave, about 2pm,  they call number 430.

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A & E

Thursday. I haven’t looked in the mirror yet. The ends of my hair are stuck together with blood but I don’t try washing it. I make tea and drink it lukewarm through a straw. I’m still cold. The dentist says I’m lucky – no nerve damage, no tooth damage and I could easily have cracked my jaw. I hide at home for the rest of the day dozing and watching Andy Murray’s downs and ups in Paris.

Friday. I sell my ticket for “The Nose” at Covent Garden. I have my own nose story, it’s pale grey and swollen. I pass time meandering round facebook and the internet. Somebody posts she can’t get down to writing her blog post and I challenge us both to finish one by 5pm. Getting it done feels like a step back to normality.

Saturday. I wash my hair! I clean my teeth! I’m tired and triumphant but it’s still only 10am. A nurse friend comes for coffee and advises Vaseline which makes my dry cracked mouth much better. My nose and cheekbones are yellow. B. takes me to South London for a change of scene and I watch a firework display from his top window. We eat very tender boeuf bourguignon and I try a small glass of wine. The food is delicious but the numbness the wine brings doesn’t feel right. I fear doing something clumsy to my stitches without noticing.

whipps-medicationSunday. A walk round the streets, hood pulled low. How awful if anyone thinks B.’s done this to me. On return my skin feels taut but he says it’s just the cold wind. A high point of Sunday is coming home on the Woolwich Ferry, not the horrible Blackwall Tunnel. We sit in the queue and contemplate the lights over the Thames. It’s a far cry from our night walk along the river in Kyoto. I sneeze several times and am perversely disappointed to find it doesn’t result in bleeding or particular pain.

Monday. My French pupil comes, a retired gentleman with a house in France. He doesn’t realise I have stitches until I tell him, so the wound must be looking better. But after teaching I lie on the sunlit sofa under a blanket and sleep for two hours. My nose is dark grey today but the bruise is smaller. In the local shop I don’t make eye contact with anyone. I’m ashamed of my battered face and cross with the beautiful autumn forest for betraying me when I just wanted exercise and fresh air. When did I last look at my novel?

Tuesday. My nose and left cheek are yellow again but the black gash on my lips is smaller.  I return unharmed from a daring long walk for a newspaper.Outside the world is worrying: Trump? Not Trump, surely. I decide to see if I can remember the ideas I had for the novel, and open the file for the first time for a week. But I’ve lost the plot, somewhere in the forest among the blood and the golden leaves.

Wednesday. Stop press: plot retrieved courtesy of Donald Trump. The horror of his triumph sends me back to the novel, because in it I’ve put people from different races, religions and belief systems living, learning and working together. Someone said this morning the only thing to do now is, each in our own way, to speak out against his values. What’s Trump done for me? Well, he’s directed me back to the outside world and he’s made me realise there are more serious matters than my face. Which in any case is almost back to normal now, thanks to the efficiency of the staff of poor old Whipps Cross hospital and the dentist. Thank you, NHS, and thanks to those decent politicians who created it.

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The proud Victorian arches are still beautiful in a sinister way.

© Jessica Norrie 2016

Plus ca change…

So pleasing when a neat link arises between one’s own work (last week’s post about books that made me European), and something rather grander (the recent news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature).

If the Nobel Committee asked me which songwriters deserved a prize for both literature and peace, I’d say the French (and Belgian) ones. George Brassens, Jacques Brel, Barbara...and which interpreters of them deserved something too, for reaching out and breaking down barriers: Piaf, Juliette Gréco singing the words of Brassens, Aragon, Queneau – and Brel again, who crops up everywhere. The work of these songwriters/poets/singers foretold the work of Dylan decades earlier with just as much brio, panache, joie de vivre and on occasion angst (why are none of those English words?) and, dare I say, it more tunefully too.  Let’s have a look at a few gems of poetry, simple philosophy, politics and music.

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I heard the songs of Brassens as a child, not realising he also wrote poetry and novels. He lived in hiding for five years in Paris after escaping from a German forced labour camp.He was a true European, with a musical Italian mother who was a strict Catholic and a liberal, anti clerical French father. His songs are often jaunty and cheerful, but the lyrics are uncompromising.

Brassens wrote Chanson pour l’Auvergnat in 1954. (For copyright reasons I’ve not reprinted any of the original in this post, but given my own unpolished English summary instead. It’s easy to find both lyrics and performances online, by Brassens himself, Juliette Gréco and relatively recently Manu Dibango among others.)

This song is for you, the Auvergnat who without guile, gave me four sticks of wood, when my life felt cold. You gave me firewood when all the good chattering people had shut the door in my face, only firewood, but it warmed my body, and even now  gives a joyous flame to my soul.

He goes on to praise the hostess who gave him bread, when “there was hunger in my life” and  no one invited him in, and tells how her welcome still warms his heart. Finally the stranger/foreigner (l’étranger means both in French, how UKIP must envy that) who, watching as the police arrested him, gave him an awkward smile of encouragement rather than laughing and clapping with the watching crowd. That sweetness still burns like the sun in his soul.  When you good people die, he says in each chorus, may you go to heaven.

Some parallels here, surely, with the situation of migrants to Europe? Let us hope they meet an Auvergnat…

Piaf sang of the kindness of strangers too, in a song you will all know the tune of – daah, Dah, dah, Daah, dah DAAAHH but whose story you may not have known:

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Come in, Milord, sit down. It’s so cold outside but you’ll be comfortable here…Put your feet up!

The singer is a prostitute and her client a English aristocrat. She’s flattered that he’s come to her, she’s seen him go proudly past, a beautiful girl at his side (so beautiful it made her shiver), a silk scarf over his shoulders. Then today the girl left on a ship, threw away his love, broke his heart. How sad love is, and life itself…but you can find new chances for happiness. He’s a great lord and she’s just a woman of the streets, but she can sympathise…(as the the music slows and Piaf speaks in a shocked voice rather than singing) “but you’re crying, milord. …there, there…it’s not so bad…give me a little smile?…that’s it..bravo!“and the music speeds up, they dance,  and the man is comforted, for a while at least. This brilliant song turns social standing on its head: the poor street girl has the generosity and power to comfort the aristocrat in his moment of fragility – and yet she and we know he will probably survive longer and more comfortably than she. The songwriters were Marguerite Monnot and Joseph Mustacchi.

Thirdly, “Barbara”. She was born Monique Serf  in Paris to Jewish parents from Alsace and Odessa.
barbara-3She spent the war in flight from the Nazis, yet her song Göttingen (1965) must surely be the soundtrack to peace and reunion everywhere. She visited the German town and wrote this haunting song about how Göttingen’s parks and schoolchildren and roses were different to those in Paris, but just as beautiful; about how when there is no shared language you can still smile at each other, and about how she fears another war between France and Germany because there are people she loves in Göttingen. She recorded the song in both French and German, and it was quoted by Gerhard Schroeder at the celebrations to mark 40 years of the Elysée Treaty of Reconciliation. Do listen to it – but be warned, it will become a earworm and so it should.

I don’t mean to look only at the past (and I have nothing against Americans or Dylan!) Last week I suggested Books against Brexit and will return to that, but for now I seem to have swung towards a (better) Song for Europe. How about the wider world and the present? Fortuitously, this came onto my facebook page today. It’s good to see the tradition of moving, constructive, poetic song writing in response to power and exclusivity is still going strong: This American Life asked Sara Bareilles to imagine what President Obama might be thinking about this election. She wrote this song, which Leslie Odom Jr. sings. It’s free to download until December 3. Credits at the links given.

Songwriters: Brassens, Georges Published byLyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Monnot & Mustacchi Published byLyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group Barbara:my sheet music ©Les Editions Métropolitaines, 11 rue de Provence 75011 Paris

© Jessica Norrie 2016