Life in France: A Taste of the Parisian Creative Life

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Continuing in the series of Irish citizens who have set up home in France, Tootlafrance.ie talks to a creative Dublin couple living in Montmartre.

Back in the 1990s, Anne Cleary and Denis Connolly moved to Paris: “We moved to Paris in 1990,” Anne recalls. “We had both studied architecture and graduated. At the time, work in Dublin was very hard to find so the choices were London or Paris. So, we came over here to give it a go and see what would happen… and we never left!”

A lot of those of Anne and Denis’ peer group also gravitated to the French capital. For any non-French national starting work in Paris, it can be a procedure fraught with plenty of paper-work and and frustration, not to mention having to cope in a new language. At that particular time in history, however, the shortage of architects in Paris was so acute that getting a job with a firm was an unusually speedy procedure:

“They had had this big boom here in the 1980s and for the first year or so that we were here, an awful lot of people we knew from college came over here… We shared apartments together. It was amazing really because hardly any of us spoke much French and we all sat down and wrote out these hand-written letters in pidgin French to architects’ offices applying for jobs. And we all got jobs within days… Architecture and building were booming and they were desperate for staff who could draw.

“So it meant that we all got jobs really quickly and then from working, we all learned to speak French very quickly too.”

Most of her contemporaries, she says, went home and started up their own practices in Ireland but Anne and Denis decided to stay.

“We’d always loved France as students when we’d come here… It was really driven I suppose, by a romantic notion of living in Paris – drinking wine along the Seine and all of that. That’s what it seemed like when you’re young.”

Although finding a job was easy, Anne says that it wasn’t easy being a young architect in France. Dedication in the form of unconventionally long hours was expected of new graduate employees – what the French referred to as a charette job.

Denis and Anne decided to get off the charette, therefore, and try operating on a freelance basis so as to get a better work-life balance. The plan worked: they got “quite a lot of work”, allowing them to free up enough hours to pursue their creative interests.

La Vie en Rose? Denis and Anne on thebalcony of their apartment with Montmartre Cathedral in the background

“So now we do a few months of drawings and take several months off and work on our art work and other ideas,” says Anne.

“We started to hang around with a lot of artists in the mid- and early nineties – a lot of people who were involved in performance art and sound art and I suppose that influenced us a lot in the way we work.”

A few years ago, American publication Time magazine ran a front-cover feature announcing that French culture was “dead”, outperformed and outshone by so many other countries and ceasing to be a force in the global artistic scene as it once was.

Did Anne and Denis get any such feeling of this supposed artistic demise as they became part of the Paris arts scene?

“I think that it’s very much linked to politics,” says Anne. “When we came here, it was a really exciting place to be; there was such a buzz around Paris in the early 1990s and people were really open to new ideas… and then somehow it changed. The right have been in power for nearly 20 years now (until last month’s presidential election win by Socialist François Hollande) and France has progressively become more conservative and more consumer-oriented since those days, I think. But I really hope it’s going to change again! For me, it’s a very exciting right now with François Hollande being elected and perhaps bringing a whole swing away from all of that.”

Anne and Denis can only vote in local municipal elections, courtesy of the fact that they are not French citizens. Anne herself has got involved with local politics and was a member of the French Green Party, for whom she stood for election a few years ago in the 18th arrondissement where she lives – an eight-minute walk north of Montmartre Cathedral.

Anne and Denis’ artistic output is a highly varied one. One of their artistic projects was a series of films, where they filmed ordinary people in their neighbourhood going about their daily routines on the street outside Anne and Denis’ apartment. They called it “Scenes from a Boulevard”.

“We keep changing,” she says. “We’ve done a lot of documentary, we’ve done a lot of interactive work, we’ve done a lot of light installations… I think that, being architects, we respond to commissions we get rather than making a product from scratch. So, the project can take on all sorts of different forms depending on what we’re doing.

“We’ve always said that our work is not about expectation – about coming and looking at something passively. It really is about engagement and so in order to try and do that, we try to make people get involved, but not in a way that’s condescending to them but in a way that gives them the potential to get involved and to be creative themselves. At least that’s what we hope.”

Bringing it all Back Home: Denis and Anne on an artistic project with a youth group in Castlebar 2011

In any given year, they have a number of artistic projects on the go both in Ireland and in France. Most recently, they have a large installation in Farmleigh House entitled “Hall of Mirrors”; the result of a two-year collaboration with scientists in Paris and Dublin. The couple are over and back to Ireland on a regular basis – a distinct advantage from living in the capital city is having good flight connections close by. This gives them a rare contemporary perspective on both countries.

“I think that Ireland needs to take a deep breath and ask itself what kind of society it wants to be,” says Anne when I ask her about the good and the bad of both societies. Having seen how a strongly social society like France works, she is adamant that wealth distribution is a lesson that the Irish Republic needs to take on board: “You’ve got to take tax from wealthy people and tax businesses. It’s unfortunate and I know that the argument is that you won’t get multinationals setting up in Ireland if you do, but you have to get money where there is money if you want to restore services. You just can’t do it any other way: you can’t have hospitals, schools and roads if the money isn’t coming from somewhere. It’s a difficult one.

“The funny thing is that Sarkozy was elected on the basis of people looking around at other countries and going ‘Look how everybody else is doing so well in Ireland and England and Spain!’ He got in on that basis, that he was going to free everything up economically, but it all came apart in his face instantly and when the downturn came, France was less badly hit than most other countries.”

As an example, Anne describes how difficult it was to get a mortgage when they were buying their own home. The bank they were dealing with applied criteria that were very strict and was concerned about the ratio of their earnings to the loan they were seeking.

“If you didn’t earn more than so much, then you couldn’t borrow more than a certain specific sum,” she says. “Whereas in Ireland or England or Spain, they loosened up very much on that, which meant that a lot of people ended up not being able to repay their mortgage. It didn’t really happen here: it was starting to happen but France was a little bit behind in terms of creating a liberal economic regime and then the crisis came.”

On the positive side for Ireland, there is what she describes as a a “really positive spirit of doing stuff”, citing it as one of the main reasons why they’ve ended up doing so much work in Ireland.

“The French are extremely pragmatic to the extent that it slows everything down very much. People will not take a risk and what we love about Ireland is that people will take a risk to so something exciting.” She says that there is a French tendency to fear something that hasn’t been done before and to think: If it hasn’t been done before, then how do we know it will work?

She’s not sure what is at the root of such a lack of creative spirit but says she suspects that it has to do with twenty years of budget cuts leaving little to use on truly creative art when so much of the cultural national budget is used on maintaining France’s huge cultural legacy. In Ireland, she says, we don’t have the heavy infrastructural expense of maintaining and staffing museums like the Louvre, for example.

Life's a Beach: Denis with daughters Bo and Lotti in St Malo, Brittany in 2011

The couple are well settled into their Paris lives and have two children – twin girls Bo and Lotti. The idea of some expatriated Irish of bringing their children back to Ireland some day doesn’t really apply with Denis and Anne because they travel back to Ireland often several times a year. Anne, therefore, sees the family remaining in France for the foreseeable future:

“I think that we’ll stay in France because the medical system here is so good and we have our children here and we own our home and it would be very financially difficult to move home. It’s also very good for the children to be bilingual. I think it’s a fabulous opportunity for them. But we’d also like to have a small base in Ireland as well. Maybe now that things have become less expensive, we might be able to do that.”

The children go to a Catholic school on the south side of the city and they travel by scooter to class on the other side of the River Seine every day – a daily family activity that helps keep the parents fit too.

Video Stars: Anne and Denis at their interactive video installation "Pourquoi Pas Toi?" at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, 2009

Even after many years of immersion in a different language, people can often still have difficulty in keeping up with high-speed conversation in a group, for example. After twenty years of living in Paris, do they ever have any problems with French?

“No – I’ve never any trouble in keeping up with conversations,” says Anne. “I might occasionally find myself searching for a word in English these days! But for me, the main difficulty I have is in writing. I write an awful lot, and I’m just not confident in writing in French. I prefer to write it in English and then get it translated. I just feel that I don’t have the faculties to express what I really want to express. Denis is a bit more confident in writing in French than I am, but I’m told that my French accent is better than Denis’!”

www.connolly-cleary.com (Their website, with news about their work and links to many of their videos)

One Reply to “Life in France: A Taste of the Parisian Creative Life”

  1. Anne Cleary says:

    Tootlafrance looking good, Conor, and interview very nice. If you’re in Paris drop me an email + we can meet up. Good luck Anne

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