Paris Elevators: A Tiny Story

I am sure many of our readers have stayed in those small hotels that are so typical of Paris. Over the years they have been reconfigured to add modern conveniences that were not in the original design. We remember one that had a triangular-shaped bathroom shoehorned into a corner, where, if one were so inclined, one could open the French windows, sit on the toilet, and enjoy the view of central Paris outside. The shower stall was so tiny that there was very little room to do any actual washing without getting bruised elbows. If you dropped the soap, you had to get out to pick it up.

These buildings were not designed for elevators, either. But as this became the expectation of most visitors, many were installed in the stairwells. There was not much room, but an elevator slightly larger than a dumbwaiter could do the job. But what was the job? In an earlier era, the porter would carry the bags upstairs while the guests squeezed into the elevator and enjoyed the stately ascent to their rooms.

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Alas, porters have disappeared in these smaller places, so the elevators have gained another function. In that same hotel (not the one pictured above), we did what was presumably expected of us: we put the suitcases inside the elevator, pushed the button for the appropriate floor, let the doors close, and raced up the stairs to await the arrival of our baggage. Passenger elevators had become freight elevators. And with their open metal cages and often lovely woodwork, they were the finest freight elevators I had ever seen.

Elevators are now a feature of most Paris apartment buildings. And we got to know one small one quite…intimately, last December. One Friday night, we were going to have dinner with friends, who live in a charming old building in the Marais. We had been there before and knew the elevator was tiny. We succeeded in penetrating the building with its different entry codes for the street door and the interior lobby. At that point, we had to make a decision.

Philippa asked me, “Do we take the stairs or the coffin?” I opted for the latter. It had been a long day, and my feet were tired.

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We inserted ourselves into the tiny space. With our winter coats, plus a potted Christmas rose for our hosts in a paper bag, we were squashed. Fortunately, we don’t mind being close together. We pushed the button and after some hesitation, the inner doors closed and the elevator started to move. We ascended slowly for a few seconds. Then the elevator stopped. The doors opened, but instead of seeing the landing in front of us, we faced a concrete wall.

We pushed the button for the third floor again. Nothing. We pushed the buttons for some other floors. Nothing. We pushed every single button on the panel. No luck. We tried a button with the image of a bell on it. A bell rang. We called out, not too loudly at first, but with more alarm as time went on. No answer.

There was an intercom/telephone contraption on the wall, so we tried that. We heard some ringing followed by static. Then we were put on hold. We hoped that this particular corporate function had not been farmed out to some offshore location where the operators who were standing by spoke neither French nor English.

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Then everything happened at once. Our friends upstairs heard our cries and the bell, and realized that since we were due to arrive at that time, it was probably us making all that noise. As we heard their voices coming closer, the telephone came to life. I was shouting to let our friends know where we were, and Philippa was shouting into the telephone. The lady on the other end asked for the address of the building; we provided it. Then she seemed particularly anxious to know the number of the floor at which the elevator had stopped. We had no idea, because this was not one of those openwork elevators with a view of the surrounding staircase. The walls were solid.

The edgy sense of panic receded once we were back in contact with the world. Our host went upstairs to call the repair company and returned with the news that a repairman was in the neighbourhood and would be there in 30 to 60 minutes. His wife stayed nearby and kept us talking. She said she had once been stuck in the elevator with her children and had told them stories to keep them amused while they were waiting to be rescued.

When the conversation flagged a little, Philippa sang a few Christmas carols, just to keep panic at bay. When she ran out of ideas for carols, she sang “O Canada” in English and then in French. Time passed.

The repairman finally arrived. When the inner doors suddenly started to close, we yelped in surprise. The elevator sighed its way downwards, the doors opened and we stepped out into the ground-floor lobby again. We reckon we had been in there for about 35 minutes. Had we a bottle of wine, we would gladly have given it to the repairman. We didn’t think he would want the potted plant. Nonetheless I think he understood we were very grateful. We bid adieu to our kind angel of mechanical mercy and walked upstairs to our friends’ apartment. Our host thought we might need something a bit stiffer than wine to start with, and offered Cointreau on ice. We highly recommend this for anyone in a similar situation.

Over dinner, we mentioned that on the Air France flight a week earlier, we had seen a 1982 film that is often replayed at Christmastime: Le Père Noël est une ordure (Santa Claus is a bastard). It is a frantic comedy set in the offices of a crisis call centre on Christmas Eve. In the film, one of the office employees, burdened down with gifts and food for her family in Creteil, gets stuck in the elevator when she is leaving the building. She spends much of the film in the elevator (one of the open kind) eating the Christmas food and using the children’s toys to try to extricate herself. When the elevator repairman arrives… well, maybe we won’t tell you, in case you ever see the film. We wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.

Here she is, as played in the film by Josiane Balasko. Alas, we didn’t have a trumpet to summon help.

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When it was time to depart, we put on our coats, took one look at the door of the coffin (our host later told us that the dimensions of the floor were 52 x 54 cm or about 20 x 21 inches) and without discussion, walked down the stairs and into the Paris night.

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We took the stairs more often after that.

Text by Norman Ball, image of hotel elevator from TripAdvisor (Hotel Langlois), photographs of elevator door and interior by Patrice Roy, photograph of intercom by Philippa Campsie.

Posted in Paris architecture, Paris film, Paris hotels | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Life on the rue du Ranelagh

By the time you read this, we will have returned from Paris, where we spent Christmas. Friends had graciously given us the use of an apartment on the boulevard Suchet in the 16th arrondissement.

Ah, le seizième ! C’est un peu triste, n’est-ce pas ?” said a lady in a shop, when we mentioned where we were staying.

We knew what she was implying. The 16th is reputed to be little more than embassies and private streets, whole swaths of it closed off by iron fences and digicodes, automatic garage doors and frosted glass panels.

But as we walked along the rue du Ranelagh to and from the Metro or the bus, we saw plenty of life, too. Shopkeepers, students, dog walkers, movers and delivery people, parents with kids in strollers or on scooters, and, yes, expensively groomed women in fur coats, men in formal business attire, and plenty of gardiens.

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Rue du Ranelagh would never make it onto a short list for the “Only Street in Paris” (the name of an enjoyable book by Elaine Sciolino). It is not a street that captures a little world; it is neither unique nor typical. Parts are attractive, parts are banal, and some bits are downright peculiar. But it is far from triste.

Let’s start with the name. When Philippa lived on the rue du Ranelagh as a student, she had a vague idea that it had been named for an Irish notable. Wrong. She should have noticed the all-important “du.”

If the street had simply been named for a person, the word “du” wouldn’t have been there. (See note on Paris street names below.) Rather, it is the street of the Ranelagh, and the name does not denote a person, but is an eponym for a pleasure garden. Such a garden had been established in 1742 in Chelsea, London, on land that had belonged to a Lord Ranelagh, and his name became associated with the place.

The creation of the Paris version in 1774 is attributed to someone called Morisan (nobody seems to know his first name). He is usually described as a “garde” at the Porte de Passy, but he was more than a gardien. Clearly he had the resources and connections to enclose some land belonging to the maréchal de Soubise, build a café, a restaurant, and a “salle de spectacle,” all of which were sufficiently upscale to attract the highest in society, including Marie-Antoinette. (Dances were held on Thursdays; this implies a clientele that does not work on Fridays.)

Morisan originally called it the “Petit-Ranelagh,” but dropped the “Petit” when the place became successful. It had a checkered career during the Revolution, but revived for a while in the first half of the 19th century, again, on Thursday nights. At this point, men paid three francs to enter, women paid one franc. According to an account from the 1840s, this was a good sign – one should avoid places in which women were admitted free.

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Today, les Jardins du Ranelagh is the name of a park near the Musée Marmottan on the western edge of the city. There are rides for children (ponies included), marionettes, and a statue of La Fontaine, complete with renard, corbeau, et fromage.

The rue du Ranelagh lies south and east of the gardens, and spans the area between the old Petite Ceinture and the river.

Each day, we would approach the street from its farthest western point, crossing the route of the Petite Ceinture, which at this point is a nature trail in one direction and a dog-walking path in the other.

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Some of the old rails are still visible.

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When the railway was still running, there was a rickety-looking passerelle (footbridge) going up and over the line at this point.

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Emerging from this strip of greenery, one is confronted by two huge buildings on either side of the rue, positively writhing with sculptures on their facades, one surmounted by a ludicrously high top that serves no apparent purpose; the other by a tower with a crest that is probably fanciful.

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Facing these imposing residences across the Boulevard Beausejour (which parallels the railway right-of-way) is a structure the size of a detached garage, squashed between the road and the Petite Ceinture … La Cabane du Smartphone. Improbably enough, it appears to be a going concern. It commands a splendid view straight down the rest of the rue du Ranelagh.

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The juxtaposition suggests that the rue du Ranelagh does not take itself all that seriously. A few steps farther on are a convenience store, a tailor shop, an interior design company, and a Sicilian restaurant. Commerce flourishes among the mansions.

This stretch of the street was the last to be developed, since it was at the outermost edge of the city. It includes several large detached houses, the late 19th-century equivalent of nouveau-riche suburban monster homes, built by people with pretensions.

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The most eye-catching, a brick castle with a turret, shown above, is now the embassy of Suriname (hands up all those who would need Google to locate that country). Another is the embassy of Slovakia.

We were more interested in an anonymous house we passed. There is a blue rope leading from the iron fence at the street to the front door. Did it allow visitors to ring the bell without entering at the gate? Was it a crude mobility assistance device? At first, we never saw any lights after dark, but one evening the top floor was illuminated. Madwoman in the attic? A servant looking after the place? We had all kinds of theories.

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At the corner of the rue du Ranelagh and the avenue Mozart, there are all the necessary shops – boulangerie, fromagerie, boucherie, poissonerie, wine shop, pharmacie – as well as a Metro entrance. The bustle here is the same as one would find anywhere on a commercial street.

A little farther on we pass a florist, where we bought a Christmas rose for friends, and the Lycée Molière, originally established as a lycée for “jeunes filles” in the 1880s, one of five established for young women only. It is co-ed now, but we were impressed by its origins.

Opposite the lycée is a woodworking business (ébenisterie). When we looked in, we saw a young woman efficiently restoring an old chest of drawers.

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Another business, which we found weirdly fascinating, was the permanent make-up shop. It may be busy at other times, but when we passed we never saw anyone taking advantage of the facilities, which resembled a cross between salon and surgery.

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In this part of the rue du Ranelagh, many buildings date from the 1950s or later. Their facades are forgettable, but many seem to have one delightful feature: at ground level there is glass on the street and the garden side, so passers-by can look through into the interior gardens. What a contrast to the hidden gardens of the older buildings! How very Republican. Liberté, égalité, visibilité. No more separation between inner and outer landscapes.

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Most of the buildings have underground garages with sloping entrance ramps, but one day, we were amazed to see a door open and a car drive onto a car-sized elevator that would take it to its designated floor. We weren’t in time to photograph the interior, but here are the doors.

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From the rue Raynouard east, the street descends towards the Seine, with the huge bulk of Radio France on the south side, made even bulkier by the paraphernalia of ongoing construction and renovation. We were interested to discover that before Radio France, this was the site of the usine à gaz de Passy.

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At the river’s edge is a commuter train station named for avenue Président Kennedy, a gas station, and a graffiti-adorned car wash so small that it could be a pop-up. Norman saw a model of an Alfa Romeo there that he had never seen before. The car wash and gas station obscure the view of the river from the bus stop, where we would wait for a No. 70 to take us to the Musée Valentin Haüy, where Norman is pursuing his research.

After doing this walk backwards and forwards for more than a week, we concluded that the 16th was far from triste. It is a lively part of the city, not all of it hidden behind digicodes. But it takes some time to reveal itself.

 

Note on Paris street names: Streets are named for people, places, or things. In general, for a person, the proper name appears alone (avenue Mozart, rue Mirabeau). For a place name, it takes the particle de (rue de Rome, rue de Bretagne). For a thing (which might be a date or event), it takes the particle plus the article, that is, du, de la, de l’, or des (rue de l’Assomption, avenue des Peupliers).

There are exceptions, of course: sometimes a name includes a particle (rue de Tocqueville), and a name with a title or honorific is treated as a thing (avenue du Président Kennedy, rue du Docteur Blanche). Some names, like Ranelagh, are eponyms and therefore things. Masculine place names take the article (place du Canada) and sites such as former suburbs or gates are treated as things (rue du Faubourg St-Jacques, place de la Porte Saint-Cloud). Sometimes you just have to know whether a word is a name or a thing: rue Jasmin refers to a person with that name, not a flower, for example.

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Text and original photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball

Posted in Paris history, Paris parks, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

My life in France (Part 3)

Paris was exhilarating; Paris was exhausting. By Easter, especially with all the extra services the choir had to attend, I felt in need of a break. One problem: no money. Then someone at St. George’s Church told me that a few members had recently gone on a retreat at a Benedictine monastery. It sounded restful and inexpensive. It sounded interesting. I wrote to the Benedictines and asked if it would be possible for me to work instead of paying them for my stay. Of course, they replied. There is always gardening to do. And that is how I came to visit Bec-Hellouin in Normandy for the first time.

The abbey at Bec dates back to the 11th century. The parishioners of St. George’s had gone there because of its strong connections to the Church of England. William the Conqueror was from those parts and called on a friend from Bec Abbey, Lanfranc, to take the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Most of the church had been destroyed during the Revolution (a tower remained), but in the late 1940s, a group of monks resettled the remaining abbey buildings. The former refectory – an austerely beautiful vaulted space in a Neoclassical building dating from the 17th century, which had been used as a stable during the Revolution – became the new church.

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My destination was not the abbey itself, but the nearby Monastère Ste-Françoise Romaine, whose residents were called moniales, rather than nuns. The monastery was about two kilometres from the abbey and consisted of a main building and several large, comfortable houses for guests. One of the wonderful features of the place, for me, was the fact that on Sundays and feast days, the moniales joined the monks in the abbey, so they were able to sing the vast repertoire of four-part church music, rather than being restricted to women-only or men-only music. In fact, the choir was renowned and had made several records.

On the Tuesday after Easter, I left Paris early in the morning and took a train to Evreux. I bought a coffee in Evreux station as I waited for a bus. I was hungry, but I was anxious not to spend much money. Then a mother standing beside me bought her child a fresh brioche. That was too much for me. I bought one. I don’t think anything has ever tasted better.

The bus from Evreux wandered through the countryside, stopping in small villages. A couple of hours later, I got off and walked up the road leading to the monastery. As I approached, I saw the black-robed moniales were getting onto a minibus. Soeur Marie-Josèphe, the guest mistress, took my bag, put it under a seat on the minibus, and motioned me to a seat at the back. The moniales were on their way to sing Vespers at the Abbey, and I was apparently going with them.

At twilight, having had nothing more than that coffee and brioche all day, I found myself in a long hall made of pale stone, where the monks and moniales stood in a circle around the altar, chanting. The monks wore cream-coloured robes and the moniales wore floor-length cream-coloured veils over their black habits. They still do, as this image from the monastery website shows.

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The windows of the former refectory were clear glass, with a view of fields and trees. The light outside faded, the candles in the church glowed. The music took me far away.

Back to the monastery in the minibus in the dark. (This was a special dispensation for a new arrival – after that, I walked to and from the abbey on my own, through the quiet Normandy countryside.)

After dinner, at which I struggled to stay awake, I was shown to a room at the top of one of the houses on the property. It was plain, but more comfortable than my Paris room, and joy of joys, there was a bathroom with a huge, claw-footed bathtub.

In this aerial view of the Monastère from a postcard I sent to my parents, you can see the main building, and at the bottom right, the guesthouse with its blue roof. The dormer on the left was the room I occupied.

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I spent five days there, mostly on my knees, either weeding the leeks or at services in the moniales’ Oratoire or at the Abbey. The food was simple and plentiful. I ate as much as I could. I took frequent baths. I met with and talked to the moniales, who were well-informed and perceptive. Soeur Marie-Josèphe could be very funny. One of the guests asked her what nuns did during their recreation time. She raised one eyebrow. “Figurez-vous,” she said, “we are mostly silent all week. What do you think we do?”

I hated to leave, but Paris waited, with its work and obligations. And it wouldn’t be my last visit to Bec.

Back on the rue du Ranelagh, the hectic pace continued. My mother has kept many of the letters I wrote during that time and as I read them now, I am astonished at the amount I managed to pack in week after week. Here is something I wrote in April:

I sang in a concert with the Jeunesses Musicales de France – the Mozart Requiem at the Salle Pleyel, a 30’s recital hall with no atmosphere/ambience whatsoever. Even backstage was about as thrilling as the lounge at Central Mortgage and Housing. We had to wear long black skirts and awful synthetic blouses with pobbly buttons down the back to ensure discomfort when you sit down and which split apart when you bend over. The effect was to make us all look severe and sexless (80 female choristers who reproduce by budding or spores). Still, it went off all right.

The reference to Central Mortgage and Housing was from a dreary summer job in Halifax, and the bit about reproduction betrays my recent degree in biology.

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The letters also describe a busy social life. A friend from the Jeunesses introduced me to some great cheap places to eat. When an American friend from Angers visited with her parents and grandparents, I was able to put this knowledge to good use. I also made two good friends at church, both Yale students. Larry was studying organ with Marie-Claire Alain and Adrienne was doing research for her Ph.D. in art history on the work of Theodore Rousseau (not to be confused with Douanier Rousseau) and the iconography of trees.

Larry and I formed a habit of walking the length of the Champs-Elysées after church on Sunday. He once dragged me into the McDonalds near the Arc de Triomphe to sample the milkshakes, which he said were so much better than the equivalent in the United States, because they used such creamy milk (!). Adrienne lived in the Cité Universitaire, but once house-sat for some American friends in a place near the Pantheon. I remember an evening there making and then eating cheesecake, something neither of us had been able to find in Paris.

In May, I wrote:

I’ve had 6 hours’ worth of exam writing so I am temporarily sick of life – it was no better and no worse than I expected, with one or two GLARING exceptions. As I may have mentioned, owing to the fact that all 140,000 students in Paris write their exams in the same few weeks at the end of term, we [foreign students] had our exams moved forward to today, whereas lectures continue until next Friday. The questions were written and submitted by the professors months ago and as a result there were a couple of questions [on topics] that had not been developed in classes yet. Oh well, improvise, improvise. By the sixth hour I had writer’s cramp up to my biceps and I would have put anything down just to finish and get away.

The exams were held in large modern buildings in Arceuil, a suburb south of Paris. To add insult to injury, the location was outside the zone allowable on my Carte Orange, so I had to pay an extra fare to get there.

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When term was over, I headed back to Bec-Hellouin, this time for a longer stay. I was run down and my resistance to infection was low (another whole story there, involving a trip to hospital, but I shan’t go into it now). I may be one of the few people to have experienced malnourishment in Paris, because I spent money on everything except food. But two weeks of gardening and chapel and the moniales’ hearty meals put me back together again.

Then on to Caen, Anne-Marie, and her family. They had recently had a death in the family, and I asked Anne-Marie if I should stay away. No, she replied, please come. I think I provided a useful distraction at a difficult time, and as always, they were generous and kind.

When I returned to Paris just before my departure for home, my chambre de bonne was occupied by an exchange student visiting one of Madame L.’s sons, but we had prepared for this. Monsieur St-Hilaire let me stay in his granddaughter’s room. She stayed with him in term time (though she was never there when I visited), but had returned to her family in La Baule. So my last week was spent in comfortable surroundings.

The night before I left, Adrienne and I had dinner together. I had booked a cheap charter flight from London to New York, and she gave me the names and numbers of two friends in London. I expected to be in Gatwick for only a few hours and assumed the information would be of no use. I was wrong.

When I arrived at Gatwick after a hovercraft trip across the Channel, my flight was overbooked. There would, however, be a place for me on a flight that left in three days’ time. After taking a little while to absorb this information, I hunted for the numbers Adrienne had given me. The first person I called was no help. The second told me to call back in half an hour. When I did, he told me to come to William Goodenough House, a residence near the University of London.* He had arranged a room there for me. I checked everything but an overnight bag and my guitar at the airport and set off for three days of unexpected sightseeing in London.

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The journey home had one further wrinkle in store. Before leaving Paris, I had gone to American Express and several banks in Paris in an attempt to change francs into U.S. dollars. There was some bureaucratic barrier to this exchange, and I was told to change my money at the airport. At Gatwick, the woman at the exchange desk told me she would have to convert the funds first to pounds and then to dollars, and that I would lose quite a bit on the transaction. Change them on arrival in New York, she suggested.

But the flight was delayed, and I arrived at Kennedy Airport well after midnight. The exchange desks were closed and I had nothing but English pounds and French francs. I needed to get to La Guardia to catch a morning flight to Toronto. I went out to the taxi stand and asked for suggestions. One fellow said he had a taxi-driver friend who might take foreign currency. The friend was summoned, and I paid for my trip across New York in French francs. I slept on the floor La Guardia near the Air Canada check-in desk and got the first flight out to Toronto and home.

 

Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs from the the Wikipedia entries for the Abbey of Bec Hellouin, Salle Pleyel, and the Maison des Examens in Arcueil, and the websites of the Monastère Ste-Françoise Romaine and William Goodenough House.

*Many years later, my nephew and his girlfriend (now fiancée) lived for a year in William Goodenough House and we visited them there.

Posted in Angers, French language, Paris churches, Paris music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

My life in France (Part 2)

The day after I wrote my last exam in Angers, I made a quick trip to Paris to find a place to stay. I had been accepted by the Cours de Civilisation Française de la Sorbonne, and I made a beeline for the housing office. It was a sunny day in January, and I walked from the Gare Montparnasse to the Latin Quarter by way of the Jardin du Luxembourg, feeling giddy at what I was about to do.

I found a listing for a room that I thought I could afford, just. However, when I went to see it, even I could tell that the route from the Metro stop to the apartment lay through a red-light district. Ah, non. Back to the housing office.

The other affordable option was a room in exchange for work. The lady in the housing office sized me up, made a phone call, and gave me an address in the 16th arrondissement: 28 rue du Ranelagh. I was expected for an interview as soon as I could get across town.

When I arrived, I was impressed by the large building near Radio France.

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Madame L. was cordial and explained her terms: 10 hours of light housework a week for a room, no board. Deal.

Back in Angers, I packed my bags, made my farewells, and went to a couple of final choir practices. During the spring university break, the choir was to travel to Kassel, Germany, for a short all-expenses-paid(!) tour to accompany the signing of a twinning agreement between Angers and Kassel. The choir director had agreed that the bus would pick me up in Paris on the way. This was not entirely because of my singing, but because she needed me to accompany two of our songs on a guitar.

The night before I left, Anne-Marie and I celebrated her having passed the first part of her driving test. We demolished a half-bottle of white wine and a box of After Eights and told silly jokes. Oh, I was going to miss her.

I arrived back at the Gare Montparnasse with two suitcases and three bulging plastic bags and took a taxi (the last one for a while) to get to rue du Ranelagh. Madame L. showed me to my chambre de bonne on the 7th floor. The good news: there was an elevator serving the back stairs. The bad news: my sink had only one tap (cold) and the facilities consisted of a grimy shower room and a toilette à la Turque down the hall. I learned to use these without coming into direct contact with any surface – I used a bath mitt to handle everything and wore flip-flops in the shower.

My bedroom window looked into the courtyard, but just above the roofline I could see the very tip of the Eiffel Tower. I got into the habit of looking at it first thing every morning, just to remind myself I was really here.

On my first day, Madame L. told me that she was about to accompany her son’s scout group on a trip to Brittany and that my duties during her time away would consist of checking on a neighbour every evening. Dada, as she was known, was the aged servant of M. St-Hilaire, who lived two floors below Madame L.  Dada was so frail that she could barely push the trolley on which M. St-Hilaire’s dinner was laid out. So I did it for her.

Albert St-Hilaire was in his eighties and had recently broken his leg. When I arrived that first evening pushing the dinner trolley, followed by Madame L., he took an immediate interest in a new face, sat us down and plied us with 1961 port and petit-fours. He said he hoped I could chat with him on occasion. Indeed I could, and over the course of the next few months, we got into the habit of spending Sunday nights together. Dinner consisted of cold meat and salad, followed by fruit and cheese (prepared by an able-bodied woman who came in every day and did most of the actual work in the apartment), and then we watched the Sunday night movie – anything from Tarzan dubbed in French to classic French films. I also spent plenty of time with Dada, who was kind; I helped her with various tasks, she lent me magazines and gave me leftover food. Both inhabitants of that apartment were starved for company, but given French social boundaries, they could not be company for each other.

As for Madame L., we got on well enough, but she turned out to be fanatically parsimonious. She was the sort of woman who turns lights off when she enters a room. She watered down cleaning products (I would just add more when her back was turned). And she refused to consider replacing her ancient, feeble vacuum cleaner – the only attachment that could actually pick up a thread from the carpet was the crevice tool. Imagine, if you will, cleaning a four-bedroom apartment with a crevice tool. It took some time, believe me.

Light housework included ironing and dusting, but also washing the car (to be fair, she and I did that together), walls, windows, and floors. I became well acquainted with the serpière – a vile, thick grey cloth that one pushes around with a short-bristled broom to scour the kitchen floor. What would I have given for a sponge mop!

But hey, it was only ten hours a week – she never asked for more than that. My hours were scheduled in advance, and I could do mental French practice while ironing or vacuuming. A few times I spent an hour or so talking English with the younger two of her four sons (she also had a young daughter) and I am pleased to report that one son improved his oral comprehension to the point that he stopped failing his English tests.

At times it felt a little odd to be a domestique in one apartment and an honoured invitée two floors below. Add to that my roles as a student and a chorister.

The arrangement at the Sorbonne was very different from that in Angers. I attended four two-hour lectures a week – Études stylistiques (my favourite), Évolution historique de la France (enjoyable), Littérature française du XXe siècle (not bad), and Histoire des idées dans la France moderne (irredeemably dull). On Friday mornings, two back-to-back lectures were held in the École de medecine, in an amphitheatre of hard wooden seats with high backs and narrow ledges in front that made an awkward surface for writing notes. After four hours of taking notes in a book propped on my knees, I would stagger out feeling like the retreat from Moscow. This picture of the amphitheatre from the Internet is not the best quality, but you get the idea.

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We also had classroom time in a building on the rue de Raspail with Mr. Cordier, a former high-school teacher who had been pulled out of retirement to deal with a larger-than-usual group of foreign students. He was hilarious, knew all our names by the second class, and gave us a thorough grounding in language and literature (not to mention French jokes). Our text was a bright green book containing poems and excerpts from novels. I still have it, the text surrounded by my pencilled notes.

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I joined two choirs: that of the Anglican church of St. George’s as well as the Jeunesses Musicales de France. The church was a wonderfully welcoming place, since nearly all members of the congregation were expats. The choir director was Canadian. (Norman and I still attend this church when we are in Paris and the friendliness we find there always makes us feel at home.) The church was in the basement of a modern apartment building – there had been a conventional 19th-century church building on the site, but it had been damaged during the war. The decision was made to sell the site to developers and reserve the ground floor and basement for St. George’s. The new sanctuary had only recently reopened and I was there for the inauguration of the new organ.

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The Jeunesses Musicales de France was rather different, and the choristers were not as jeune as the name suggests. The middle-aged wife of the conductor, M. Martini, sat in the front row and had a tendency to argue with him over points of interpretation. Brought up as I was to respect choir directors’ every whim, I found this startling. And rehearsals never started on time. But we did sing in some impressive venues and even made a recording of the Mozart Requiem, so I saw the inside of a French recording studio in Boulogne-Billancourt.

I had left my moped with Anne-Marie in Angers, so I took to the Metro and the bus system. When I ran out of money at the end of each month, I could amuse myself by taking a new and unfamiliar bus route. And I always ran out of money, because at the beginning of the month, after renewing my Carte Orange, I would buy tickets for an opera, a ballet, or the theatre. Or all three. I would get the cheapest seats available, but it was still an indulgence that skewed the budget. I had promised my parents that I would get by on the same monthly amount I had had in Angers, and not having to pay rent certainly helped. But it was, after all, Paris. I went to museums and art galleries at times when they were free or cheaper than usual, I bought nothing that was not strictly necessary (basic food and school supplies mostly), but I could not resist the lure of the Opera House.

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And that reminds me… but I have gone on long enough. I will finish my tale in the next blog.

Text by Philippa Campsie

Posted in French language, Paris churches | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments

My life in France (Part 1)

At the library the other day, I spotted a book about Paris I hadn’t seen before. It was by a young American woman who had spent a year in the city, learning Life Lessons and fashion tips (not necessarily in that order) and who earnestly wanted to share the wisdom she had gained. I don’t think she missed a single cliché about the lives of Frenchwomen. It made me smile.

It also made me realize that in six years of blogging, I have never described my own experiences as a student in France. It might be time to do so. They are not the kind that would be published in a book with a beret-wearing, poodle-toting, Sabrina lookalike on the cover, but it is, in fact, possible to experience France without those things.

Mine was not a Junior Year Abroad. I had finished one degree before I went, in history and biology at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. And I did not spend the whole time in Paris: I lived for the first half of the year in Angers, in the Loire Valley.

The idea to go to France came from my father, who thought all Canadians should speak both official languages proficiently. At Christmastime in my last year of university, when I was home in Toronto for a couple of weeks, he suggested I spend the following year in France. Since I had no better ideas about what I should do after graduation, I agreed.

In the New Year, I located the French department at Dalhousie and knocked on the first door I came to. The professor in that office told me that just about every university in France offered courses for foreigners who wanted to learn French and that I should send inquiries to universities in cities or towns that I thought might be interesting places to live. It was good advice.

Paris never occurred to me. I wrote to Angers, Montpellier, and Toulouse. The first and warmest response came from Angers, so Angers it was, at the Université Catholique de l’Ouest (and no, I’m not Catholic).

In the fall, my parents combined a holiday in England and France with dropping me off in Angers. This is a photo my father took of me on the ferry between Dover and Calais.

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In Angers, I had been assigned a “place with a family” by the university housing office. My parents took me to the designated address in their rented car. We pulled up in front of an attractive house near the university. I thought I had landed on my feet. The woman who opened the door greeted us politely but distantly, and walked us through the house, out the back door, across the garden, and into another house. That was where the students stayed. I was given a room on the top floor. The bathroom facilities were down three flights of stairs and across the garden. Not quite what I’d been led to expect.

I wondered aloud what it would be like in winter. My mother was horrified.

Back to the housing office. The woman there offered some other addresses. One, she told us, was usually given to French students, because it was a long way from the university. That’s the one we picked, after looking at some rather dodgy arrangements elsewhere.

I ended up in the attic of a small house on the edge of town. Here is an image of the place from Google Street View. It appears closed up (Google must have passed by in August), but otherwise, it is as I remember it. One in a sea of similar-looking houses.

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There were skylights at the back, so I did have natural light in my room, but my only view was upwards. The attic was sparsely furnished but spacious. On two sides of the room, the ceiling came down close to the floor. I learned to avoid sitting up suddenly in bed.

I saw little of the family downstairs, who were pleasant enough, but busy with their own lives. After all, they had not signed on as hosts for a foreign student; they normally offered lodgings to French students. The entrance to the attic was through the garage door and up a flight of stairs, so I could come and go independently. That was fine with me.

But the best part was that I had a French roommate. Anne-Marie spoke no English. My friendship with her made all the difference to my experiences of France. She laughed merrily at my mistakes (come to think of it, she still does), and we ate often dinner together, always with a French-English dictionary on the table to help keep the conversation going. If I had stayed in the place I’d been assigned originally, I probably would have spoken English to the other foreign students and learned much less.

We shared two rooms, a toilet and sink (I was allowed a bath downstairs twice a week), a tiny fridge, and a camping stove (which once caught fire while we were cooking). We made our own evening meals. Once or twice, the family invited me for Sunday lunch.

Most weekdays, I got a midday meal at the restaurant universitaire. There were several in town, for students from my university and those from the Université d’Angers. We queued up in what had once been an orchard; there was a plaque on the stone wall about a man who had bred a special type of pear there. I found a photo of the plaque on Wikipedia, although it is now attached to a different wall from the one I remember.

1280px-plaque_commemorative_doyenne_du_comice

I say “queued,” but actually, French students don’t line up tidily when waiting for a meal. They crowded around the door and when it opened, they surged forward en masse. On occasion I had to step back hard on someone’s foot to gain a bit of breathing room.

On the days the restaurant universitaire served boiled tripe, I filled up on bread, cheese, and vegetables. Otherwise I ate everything in front of me. Everybody complained about the food and everybody ate as much as they could. It was plain fare – none of those famous French sauces. Lots of lentils, I recall.

I bought a moped. Many of the students did (Anne-Marie had one, and so did several of my classmates). Angers was a quiet place and buses to my suburban lodgings did not run after about 7 o’clock in the evening. With a moped, I could get to class and back quickly, and get around in the evenings, too.

Here is the main university building, the one shown on the brochure; our classes were in an undistinguished modern building behind it.

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The classroom building was cold in winter (some of the windows didn’t close properly) and we kept our coats on in class. Most of the other students were British, but there were also students from Scandinavia, Iceland, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States. There were plenty of parties and get-togethers, and I made friends with a couple of the British students, but most of the Brits went home after a couple of months (this was all the time allotted in their university programs).

It was like going back to high school. We had a home room with a teacher who focused on the basics, and then we could choose from an array of optional classes.

I particularly enjoyed Synthèse in which we learned how to summarize articles and write a précis (an invaluable skill that has served me well ever since). A class in translation from English to French (mostly using newspaper articles) was taught by a lively young man with blond curly hair who couldn’t manage the name “Philippa” and so called me “Fifi.” A lugubrious prof who taught us composition carried on a personal crusade against wasted words and insisted on concise, efficient writing (another valuable skill, in any language). An older gent in a blue smock, who had written a short dictionary of slang, taught us random bits of French culture.

Here are some of the students from our class. I don’t remember who took the photograph. And I don’t know why there are no male students visible; I did have male classmates. I am at the far left, and our homeroom teacher, Madame Pajotin, is fifth from the left.

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There was also a language lab for working on pronunciation. On the way to and from class, I would wrap a scarf around the bottom half of my face and practise rolling my Rs with the noise of the moped engine to cover my efforts. I am proud of mastering French Rs this way.

I joined the university choir. Thank goodness for the moped, since we had evening rehearsals. Fortunately, I could read music, so even though my French was still a work in progress, I was asked to lead some section rehearsals (where the choir splits up into parts to learn a new piece).

I have very few photographs of my time in Angers, but I do have a photo of the choir. I am at the very far left. At the centre is our wonderful director, Mireille. The choir was a lifeline: I was one among equals there and I no longer felt like a foreigner.

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At one point, the choir was invited to join the chorus at the Grand Théâtre (shown below) for several performances of Tosca. The only parts of that opera house I ever saw were the backstage area and the stage itself, since I never attended a performance there as a member of the audience.

angers_grand_theatre

During my time in Angers, I had a couple of accidents on the moped, and in both cases, strangers rushed to help me. When a tire blew out on a busy (but slow-moving) road, the couple in the car behind me picked me up, took the moped to a nearby gas station, drove me to class, then promised to go back and got my moped and take it to the dealer for repairs. As I gasped out my thanks at their generosity with their time, they kept saying, “C’est normal.” And people wonder why I love the French.

My language skills improved, partly because of Anne-Marie’s coaching and partly because she went home to Caen on Fridays. I spent many hours on the weekends reading aloud to practise my French pronunciation, memorizing vocabulary and conjugations, and completing assignments for class. This was the reason for my eventual move to Paris: I was already in the most senior class and I needed a bigger challenge.

But before I left, I spent Christmas in Caen with Anne-Marie’s family. I became very fond of her parents and her sister Françoise (she also had two married brothers who lived elsewhere, but I didn’t get to know them well). Her mother was a wonderful cook, who added Calvados (apple brandy) to many dishes. She wasn’t the clichéd elegant Frenchwoman: she paid little attention to her appearance, but she was kind and reassuring, and I learned more from her than I can ever acknowledge.

Her husband was equally welcoming, and very proud of his corner of France. He simply could not imagine the point of travelling abroad when everything one could ever want could be found in Normandy. It was hard to argue the point.

Like the family in Angers, Anne-Marie’s parents and sister hadn’t signed on to host a foreign student, but perhaps because of that, I was treated more like a relation than a foreigner. My experience of France was very much shaped by those few weeks in Caen.

On Christmas Day, dinner started at 1 p.m. and continued until late into the evening, with a brisk walk in late afternoon for fresh air. The “trou Normand” was a feature of the meal – a shot glass of Calvados knocked back quickly to aid digestion of the mountains of food. Everyone watched me to see how I would react and I did not disappoint: I choked and coughed and my eyes watered, but I got it down.

New Year’s Eve was a party with family and friends at a half-finished house that Anne-Marie’s parents were fixing up in a tiny hamlet about forty minutes’ drive from Caen. I do have a photo that I took of Anne-Marie there.

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Her parents had bought the property when the municipality of Caen closed the allotment gardens where they had previously grown their vegetables. They found a bit of land in the countryside with a tumbledown farm building attached. First they established a garden to grow fruits and vegetables, with hutches for raising rabbits on garden scraps. Then they started to fix up the house.

On New Year’s Eve, we ate and drank and played silly games all evening and then went for a walk under the stars at midnight. At about three in the morning we collapsed into sleeping bags on a concrete floor in the half-finished house.

A few years ago, Norman and I revisited the house. When Anne-Marie’s father showed us around, I was delighted to see that almost nothing had changed in the hamlet.

There were exams in January and a break in February, at which point I moved to Paris. But that is another story for another blog.

A happy Canadian Thanksgiving to all our readers, Canadian or not. 

Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs from various sources.

Posted in Angers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

The lost neighbourhood

Last month, I was inspired by one of Lawren Harris’s paintings to investigate gasometers in Toronto and Paris. A second visit to the Lawren Harris exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario evoked another parallel between the two cities: the destruction of an entire neighbourhood in both cities to create a grand public space.

In Toronto, the lost neighbourhood was called The Ward (full name: St. John’s Ward). This collection of ramshackle houses a stone’s throw from the majestic old City Hall was a place in which many immigrants started out in Canada. The housing stock wasn’t much to look at, but there were churches and synagogues, schools and playgrounds, shops and restaurants, and thousands of inhabitants. In the image below, painted in 1911, Harris shows the contrast between the tiny houses of the residents and the huge Eaton Manufacturing Building to the east of the Ward, where many of them worked.

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A photograph taken by William James from the top of that building, looking west, offers a different view of the Ward.

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Of course, a neighbourhood of small, poor-quality houses smack in the middle of a growing city could not hope to survive forever, and the Ward was obliterated in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for Toronto’s modernist city hall, designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell, and a huge civic space in front, known as Nathan Phillips Square, with parking underground. This is a photo I took there a few days ago.

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The destruction of the Ward to create City Hall and its public square got me thinking about a vanished neighbourhood in Paris: the one that stood where I.M. Pei’s pyramid now stands, where the lawns and flowerbeds of the Louvre open out towards the Tuileries Gardens. Here is a Google Earth view of what it looks like today.

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But this was once the Quartier du Louvre, a bustling neighbourhood of streets and sizable houses, as well as churches, the royal stables, a theatre, and a hospice for the blind. You can see many of these things in the 1730s Turgot map.

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Even the Cour Carrée of the Louvre (the big square at the top of the image) has little houses in it. According to David Hanser in The Architecture of France, these particular structure were “temporary buildings, some of which housed workshops for sculptors (and some housed prostitutes).”* But hey, the king was miles away in Versailles; official attention was elsewhere.

If those houses were temporary, many of the others were centuries old. Turgot’s map shows an important institution: l’Hôpital des Quinze-Vingts (the name means 15 x 20 or 300, the original number of inhabitants) near the Palais-Royal.

quinzevingts

It was founded in the 13th century by St-Louis, originally for those blinded in military service, later for impoverished blind residents of the city. As you can see, it even had its own cemetery. An image from Gallica shows a portion of the original buildings.

quinzevingtsgallica

The hospital moved to its present location on the rue de Charenton in 1779. The old buildings in the Quartier du Louvre were demolished and a street called the Rue de Chartres was created, running at a diagonal to the surrounding streets.

At the other end of the rue St-Thomas-du-Louvre from the Quinze-Vingts, near the river, two tiny spires are visible on the Turgot map, one on each side of the road.

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The spire closer to the Place du Louvre was that of the church of St-Nicolas, the other belonged to St-Thomas. (Interestingly, the St. Thomas for whom it was named was not the apostle with the doubts, but Thomas Becket, the bishop murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 who inspired various books, plays, and movies.)

What little I could find about these vanished medieval churches described them as “collegial.” This meant that they were each a part of a religious community in which university students studied and boarded – or just boarded, as some of these places were little more than student lodging houses. Most such “colleges” disappeared during the 18th century (unlike their counterparts in Oxford and Cambridge).

The tower of St-Thomas fell down in 1739, whereupon the two establishments were merged, St-Thomas was rebuilt, and St-Nicolas was demolished. The merged entity became known as St-Louis-du-Louvre. Part of the ruined apse of the former church of St-Thomas survived into the 19th century, as shown here.

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Turgot’s plan also shows several “hôtels particuliers” (Longueville, Créqui, Crussol), which had various names over the years depending on their occupants, and served a variety of functions during the Revolution (this neighbourhood was in the centre of the action). The history of any one of them could fill a separate blog.

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The Ecuries du Roi (King’s Stables) occupied several buildings near the Tuileries, and an image from Pugin’s Picturesque Paris shows what they looked like in the 1820s.

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A map by from the 1720s by the Abbé Delagrive marks the “Chateau d’eaux” in large letters: this structure directly opposite and facing the Palais Royal was a waterworks in the form of a building with a fountain where the main front door would normally be.

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A latecomer to the neighbourhood was the Theatre du Vaudeville, which opened in 1792 on the rue de Chartres, but burned down in the 1830s.

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All in all, a bustling neighbourhood where aristocrats, clergy, students, ostlers, performers, and many others lived and worked for generations, a neighbourhood established long before the Tuileries Palace was built in the 16th century. But the whole thing disappeared in the 19th century.

For years, architects had proposed creating a huge courtyard between the Louvre and the Tuileries. There were dozens of plans, and this image from Gallica shows what some of them looked like.

proposals

Removing the existing neighbourhood was never considered a particular impediment – what bothered the architects much more was the fact that the original Louvre and the Tuileries did not line up precisely. The Tuileries was at a slight angle. Annoying, that.

The relocation of the court to Versailles put these plans on hold for more than a century. Then came the Revolution. Then came Napoleon.

December 24, 1800. Napoleon is First Consul, and lives in the Tuileries. His wife Josephine asks him to accompany her to a performance of Haydn’s Creation at a nearby theatre. They take separate carriages from the palace; Josephine’s carriage includes her daughter Hortense and Napoleon’s pregnant sister Caroline. Royalists plan to explode a barrel of gunpowder (ever after called a “machine infernale”) as Napoleon’s carriage passes the intersection of the rue St-Nicaise and the rue St-Honoré. But the explosion happens a few seconds after the Consul’s carriage has passed the spot and a few seconds before Josephine’s carriage reaches it; several people are killed, but the Consul, Josephine, and their frightened family members survive. This dramatic, if unrealistic, image tries to capture the mayhem.

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Napoleon, fed up with the apparently dangerous neighbourhood that was encroaching on his palace, revived the plans to complete the Louvre-Tuileries complex by clearing the area of its houses and narrow streets, adding a new gallery connecting the Louvre and the Tuileries palace, and opening up a huge interior courtyard. Work began on the wing that now faces the rue de Rivoli. But Napoleon was not in power long enough to see the full plan completed.

The demolition of this neighbourhood happened in slow motion compared with the demolitions in the Ward that preceded the creation of Toronto’s new city hall. But then, the buildings were much more than mere shacks. For example, when I searched for information about the Chateau d’Eau, I found several images of a street battle that took place there during the Revolution of 1848. The buildings around and behind it still look pretty solid.

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And a map from 1841 shows a few remaining blocks between the Louvre and the Tuileries.

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It was Napoleon III who oversaw the completion of decades-old plans for this area in the 1850s and 1860s, including the final clearance of the Quartier du Louvre. It was only one of many neighbourhoods that vanished during that period.

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The complete Louvre-Tuileries complex did not stand as a whole for long. The Tuileries was torched in 1871 during the brief and bloody period of the Commune that followed the fall of the Second Empire. The palace stood as a ruin until 1882, when it was demolished, thereby opening the Louvre’s newly established interior courtyard to the vista of the Tuileries gardens and the Champs-Elysées.

The space has undergone many transformations since then. In the 1950s, it was little more than a landscaped parking lot. Today it is a showplace with a glittering pyramid, carefully tended gardens, and a traffic roundabout for cars and buses; the parking is underground. But once upon a time, people lived and worked here, just as they lived and worked in the Ward now occupied by the square in front of Toronto’s City Hall.

I don’t suppose that either Paris or Toronto is unique in this way. Do you live in a city where a neighbourhood was erased to make way for a public space? Do you know what once stood there?

 

Text by Philippa Campsie; historic maps and images of Paris from Gallica and Wikipedia. Harris painting image from Vancouver Masters Gallery; James photograph from History to the People.

*David Hanser, Architecture of France (Greenwood Publishing, 2006), p. 120.

Posted in Paris history, Paris maps, Paris museums | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

The art of the gasometer

The major summer exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario is devoted to the work of Canadian artist Lawren Harris (1885–1970). I associate his name with bold, abstracted images of Canada’s Far North – mountains and glaciers and frozen seas. However, the exhibit included his early works, painted in Toronto, and one in particular caught my eye.

Harris_The-Gas-Works-1

“The Gas Works” dates from 1912. I immediately had two questions. First, where were Toronto’s old gasometers? And second, hadn’t I seen something similar in a French painting of Paris?

Question 1 was easy enough. Toronto’s gas works were at Front and Parliament streets, an area that has been redeveloped almost beyond recognition. Question 2 led me to the post-Impressionist painter Paul Signac (1863–1935) and “Gasometers at Clichy”: a much less dismal scene than Harris’s.

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Gasometers also appear, just on the horizon, in Signac’s painting of the bridge at Asnières.

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These would of course be the same gasometers from a different angle, as the suburb of Clichy is just across the river from Asnières. Signac lived in Asnières at the time.

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I also found works by Van Gogh (below) and Pissarro (not to mention many by British artists of British gasometers, some of which look much more ornate than the French ones).

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So what, exactly, are we looking at? The word “gasometer” (gazomètre) is a little misleading, because it sounds like an instrument of measurement. These huge cylindrical constructions were simply storage tanks for artificial gas (usually coal gas); in English they are sometimes known as gas holders. In a previous blog, Norman described the process of making gas from coal or other raw materials by

destructive distillation (heating to high temperature in the absence of air)… The heat drove off gases which could be collected and stored in the gasometer… and distributed from there by gas lines. This was the artificial gas that powered, heated, and lit so many buildings and businesses in the 19th century.

In these huge gas holders, the level of gas in the storage tank rose and fell within a cylindrical metal cage called a guide frame.  When full, the top of the tank rose to the height of the frame and the whole thing appeared to be a solid cylinder; when depleted, the top moved downwards, leaving only the guide frame visible. This arrangement made it possible to maintain pressure in the gas lines.

A series of photographs of the now-demolished St-Denis gasometer on French Wikipedia, taken in 1981, shows the wheels that allowed the top of the storage vessel to rise and sink with the level of the gas.

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Another photo from the same series shows the amazing view from the top of this tall structure: Sacré Coeur and the Eiffel Tower are easy to spot from here. This also means that the gasometer itself was visible from afar.

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Gasometers started to appear in Paris in the first half of the 19th century. By 1860, Paris had 19 of them; by 1907 there were 61. But with the arrival of natural gas for heating and cooking and of electricity for lighting, the numbers dropped. In 1945 there were only 23; the rest were demolished over the ensuing decades.

By comparison, London still has some of its gasometers, a few of which have been converted to other uses. Vienna even has a series of brick-framed gasometers that were turned into apartment blocks.

Aided by Gallica and our friend Mireille, I was able to locate the vanished Parisian gasometers. A ring of suburban gas works once circled the city. A turn-of-the-century album from the Compagnie parisienne de l’éclairage et de chauffage par le gaz shows installations in La Villette, Ternes-Courcelles, Passy, Vaugirard, Ivry, Belleville, St-Mandé, St-Denis, Boulogne, Maisons Alfort/Alfortville, and, of course, Clichy.

Here is the one at Vaugirard. Note how the gasometer in the foreground is slightly more ornate than the others.

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And here is a severely utilitarian version at Passy. “Epuration” means filtering or purification. The people in the picture give you a sense of the scale.

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Today, some people admire gasometers as evidence of industrial history and work to preserve them. Others are glad to see them demolished. When they were constructed, they were equally controversial (remember how many people disliked the Eiffel Tower at first). Many Parisians didn’t want to live within sight (or smell) of them.

Indeed, gas lighting in itself was controversial, as Jean-Baptiste Fressoz* has explained. For one thing, new technologies tend to put the purveyors of old technologies out of business – these would have been the makers and suppliers of alternative light sources such as oil lamps, and all the paraphernalia associated with them. Before the 19th century, oil for lighting in France came mainly from rapeseed (canola) oil, and this had been an important crop for farmers.

And there were concerns about the effects of the new technology. Fressoz explains:

As gas light penetrated theaters and operas,  arcades and boulevards,  reading rooms and cafés, the public debate on its dangers and inconveniences extended. Indeed, in all these spaces of sociability and discussion, gas brought about the insecurity of sudden darkness, the ugliness of an industrial light, the bad smells and insalubrity of chemical industries, and last but not least, the risk of explosion.

Gas was provided by commercial companies from their gasworks, which meant that individuals gave up control over the supply of fuel. The gas company might interrupt supply at its source, intentionally or unintentionally, plunging a building, a neighbourhood, even the whole City of Light into darkness…and who knows what could happen then? Crime, assassinations, chaos!

Despite the risks, France forged ahead, spurred on by competition with Great Britain, which had already adopted the technology. God forbid that the English should gain a technological advantage. French industrialists and politicians felt they had no choice.

Yet the possibility of explosions continued to unsettle Parisians. The catastrophic explosion of a gunpowder factory in Grenelle in 1794 was still part of living memory and there were two minor gas explosions in the early 1820s in Paris.

When in 1823 a huge new gasometer was proposed for the Poissonnière neighbourhood, one that was ten times larger than anything in London, French scientists studied the matter in their usual abstract, theoretical way, and assured the public that the risk was minimal. Bien sûr, the gasometer would not explode. Impossible.

On May 1, 1844, a gasometer at the Ternes-Courcelles gasworks was blown over in the wind and exploded, causing what La Presse described as “une immense gerbe de feu” (a huge blaze of fire). Firefighters and policemen were able to bring it under control, but six workers were injured.

Compagnie_parisienne_d'éclairage_et_de_[...]Fernique_Albert_btv1b1200034x (10)

On September 27, 1849, a gasometer on rue Richer that supplied the Opera burst into “un immense jet de flamme” because of a gas leak, but an employee was able to prevent the spread of the fire to the storage areas where stage sets and props were stored.

Alarmed by these events, in 1852 the government ordered that all new gasometers were to be built outside the city. But the gas companies preferred to be close to their clients. And the city was gobbling up former suburbs so quickly that the order was largely meaningless. In 1860, the city expanded by annexing former suburbs, essentially bringing gazomètres into the city that had formerly been in the banlieue.

Meanwhile, the six different companies that provided gas had merged in 1855 to form the Compagnie parisienne de l’éclairage et de chauffage par le gaz.** 

Artificial gas reached its zenith before the First World War, when most of these photographs were taken, and after that, it declined as a source of power and light. Electricity largely took its place, with its own pros, cons, risks, and benefits.

But when artificial gas was king, one of the biggest installations was in La Villette. The usine à gaz had twelve gazomètres, as well as vast works for distilling and processing gas.

La Villette map

Compagnie_parisienne_d'éclairage_et_de_[...]Fernique_Albert_btv1b1200034xThis factory survived well into the 20th century. On the rue de l’Evangile in front of the gasworks was an ancient calvaire (a roadside crucifix, the only one in Paris), and the juxtaposition of the two seems to make an association between gasometers and Golgotha.

1406004

Today, the calvaire is still there, minus its grotto, but the gasometers are long gone. The last, the huge one in St-Denis, disappeared in 1982, and with it, a whole way of life ended.

 

Text by Philippa Campsie. Photographs from Gallica and Wikipedia. Maps from Gallica. Lawren Harris painting from urbantoronto.ca, Signac paintings from National Gallery of Victoria and Wikiart, Van Gogh sketch from Wikiart.

*“The gas lighting controversy,” Journal of Urban History, vol 33, no. 5, July 2007.
** The city had previously been divided among the Compagnie Anglaise, Compagnie Française, Compagnie Parisienne, Compagnie de Belleville, Compagnie Lacarrière, and the Compagnie de l’Ouest, each with its own gasworks, territorial reach, and distribution network.
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