I love to wander around Beaubourg on a cold, damp, night in November, to smell the burning from the fire-eater’s torches that mixes with the warm smoke given out by the chestnut roaster’s brazier, and I let them both fill my head. A cold, fresh, misty breeze touches my cheeks and moves the leaves and litter about at my feet.
All around the square, people huddle in groups or wander alone like me and all their faces light up differently under the influence of the tall, orange flames that shoot up from the fire-eater’s mouth. The flames and the street lights land on black faces, white faces, yellow faces, all painted differently, some made to look villainous, some made to look sick, and some look far from home.
And there’s music. African drums, South American pan pipes, buskers, they all turn out tunes that have been adapted to please the Western European ear, all hoping to wrest a Euro or two from the deep, warm pockets of the rich who mingle among the crowd, and you don’t have to be rich.
There will be the taste of menace in the air. The sword-swallower, the fire-eater, the martial arts performer – any of them could make a fatal mistake but they don’t. There’s the hint of danger from groups of heavy drinkers, young and old, dishevelled and well-groomed, and I watch my back. There’s the sense of the everyday when an elderly lady with a blue rinse walks her coated poodle across the square, tip-toeing around the menace, the flames and the dirt.
And when the wandering is done I love to slip unseen into the cinema in the Centre Pompidou, to watch a sub-titled Russian film and them emerge a few hours later in a different mood when people have moved on and all that’s left are a few drunks, the leaves and litter that still swirl in the light breeze, and the cold touch of the foggy night on my face.