Paris’ public bench eulogy

oeuvre d'art ephèmère sur le port de javel

  They are everywhere but you don’t see them. Or rather you don’t notice them. With their shy colour and sober material, the public benches punctuate Paris’ pavements, offering a quiet place to pedestrians just perfect for meditation. Having a more thorough look at it, you will indeed realize that each bench finds its specific user. They are sometimes a privileged place for chitchat where the world is put to rights, hidden from the others by the simple mean of being at anyone’s sight. Others, more lonesome, chose them to grab a bite during lunchtime, preferring the bench over a table at the restaurant. For these people, it is more pleasant to have lunch next to strangers than facing an empty chair. Finally, some people just use the bench for what it was meant for: having a seat. These most pragmatic consumers seem to be doing nothing. The bench is for them a medium for personal reflection. Behind these simple acts hides, however, a very complex consumption of the public benches, and a profound analysis would be a real brain teaser. You could stay for a whole day observing the relations they maintain with the residents, you wouldn’t be able to draw a coherent conclusion. Some people use them as a reading room, others as a telephone box, yet others as a stopover on their pedestrian itinerary. You’ll see chatting friends succeeding a man using it as a footstool to lace up his shoes, all of this after a homeless took a nap on it. The bench, item of social link or just urban common area? We could also think that it is the elderly who mainly usurp this public domain, fooled as we are by the cliché of a grandmother coming down in the early morning and, to forget her loneliness, comes to mingle with the daily turmoil, with crazed eyes and her joint hands on a walking stick. That isn’t true. The grandparents are of course assiduous consumers of the benches, but no more and no less than all other layers of the population. The benches are everyone’s, and everyone takes possession of them, for better and for worse. dans le jardin des sentuers du parc georges brassens Georges Brassens sang of the public benches as a privileged place for romantic amateurs of deep kisses. The benches are indeed shrouded in stories you ignore: yesterday Madame announced to Monsieur that he was going to be dad, the day before two beings hugged for the first time making promises of a definitively plural future, the week before tears flew on the wrought iron when the plural split up to become singular (again). Of these gone adventures stay only few signs, carved into the wooden planks, reminding us that although the bench doesn’t mean anything to us, it is for others the symbol of the place where everything starts, and where everything comes to an end. l'allée des cygnes What would be Paris without its benches? Victim of its unnoticeable character, it is in the collective imagination an irremovable object, welt to the ground, which sees the centuries go by without ageing. The benches however dethrone easily all acclaimed public spaces, as bars, restaurants and nightclubs. What other place in the capital lets you simply watch during hours souls go by without them noticing anything? Where is it still possible to devour your newspaper without any preoccupation? Where can you still approach a pretty girl without being afraid of an embarrassing public setback? The public bench takes indeed advantage of an incredible paradox: unconsciously erased from the mind, it is though an object that will never go out of fashion, anchored in our myths. We could finally add that it is today a model of modern consumption. Free, you can take it, through it away, than take another one. It has no negative environmental effects and is constantly recycled in its use. Finally, it is an object that you can take possession of individually or collectively. Resolutely in tune with its time, it is the only good on earth that shapes its user as it likes. oeuvre d'art ephèmère sur le port de javel Thinking of Paris without its benches, I see pictures of a chaotic city. I see lost people, sitting or lying on the ground, begging the residents to bring down some old seats to give to the population. And then, these seats would announce the decline of the Parisian civilization. We would have given in to the demons of the 21st century. The public benches would become public seats, most individual symbol. Because of their rarity, people would queue up for having a seat, and the most comfortable ones would be privatized under the fallacious argument of preservation. Then would come demonstrations, demands, and finally even war. Paris would then be cut in two: these who have a seat, and these who want to take one over. Paris’ public bench, quite a symbol…

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A story of paris' public bench, the older inhabitant of the city.

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