Wednesday, 3 March 2010

A thin city

At noon on the first Wednesday of every month air raid sirens boom across Paris. The first time I heard this back in November the sound took me by surprise. I looked into the street to see if anything was happening, but all the Montparnassians below me walked calmly on, so I shrugged it off too. Hearing the alarm today, it already sounded familiar. The siren tells you exactly where and when you are: Paris, first Wednesday, 12 noon. But that precise present is shadowed by the city’s past, and fears for the future. The alarms are a test, to ensure that the sirens still work and can be used to warn citizens of danger in the case of future catastrophes. They also recall the dangers Paris has already survived, violence that has taken place here.

Victims of the Shoah, named at the Paris Museum of the Shoah (source)

You can barely walk down a street in this area without encountering a memorial, especially to people killed during the German occupation of 1940-44. On my way to our post office yesterday, for example, I passed a primary school with a plaque above the main door dedicated to the Jewish children taken from that school to the camps. The long unknown history of the house we live in troubles me in a way that of the Victorian house I grew up in never did. I remember that this city has endured revolutions and invasions, that it tests its sirens because of real experience.

Last year I blogged about Mircea Cantor’s Monument for the end of the world, a sculpture that tries to ‘commemorate’ a future event. I asked whether cities should build monuments not just to events in their past, but to think about lives to come. In a very dark way, the Paris sirens do this.

France is currently recovering from a natural disaster – the weekend’s storm killed over 50 people in France and swollen tides flooded towns along the Atlantic coast.

La-Faute-sur-Mer on Monday

In the capital we woke to strong winds but no damage. Today the sun is shining brightly, it’s March, spring does finally feel close, and the siren has come and gone. The alarm might be a signal of time’s continuity, its regularity, or perhaps it signals time’s rips, traumas and tears.


  1. They used to do that in Liverpool in my childhood - certainly as late as 1964. I don't remember when they stopped. Weird to be reminded---

  2. Hi Elizabeth. Interesting about Liverpool - I wonder if they'll stop here too eventually.