Finding Café Momus

A few weeks ago, we received the following comment from Martin Nelson in England on our blog about Rooftops:

I am a singer, and lived briefly during 1982 in the Palais Royal district, Rue Molière… I had an old 1950 guide book with me – The People’s France – Paris by AH Brodrick – and this told me that … in Rue des Prêtres St Germain l’Auxerrois, was the original Café Momus, celebrated by [Henry] Murger in La Vie de Bohème, and the setting for Act Two of Puccini’s opera La Bohème. In 1982 it was still a café (but no longer Momus) and served the delivery van drivers for La Samaritaine, whose depot adjoined. I told the patron this tale, but it drew a complete blank; he had not heard of the opera, let alone his establishment’s celebrated history. In past times above the cafe, Mr Brodrick also informs me, was the ‘queer dingy little offices of the Journal des Débats which in its day occupied a unique position in European journalism.’ There. I wonder if this will set you off on a hunt…

Well, yes, Martin, it did.

First, I wanted to take a look at the street in question. The earliest image I found was a drawing by the English artist Thomas Boys, which shows the street in about 1820. It looks like a bustling spot. The wall beside Momus, besides advertising its prix fixe menu and billiard tables, mentions “toiles blanches et jaunes,” which suggests a fabric shop in the same building.

On Gallica I found a lovely watercolour of the narrow street by Henri Lévis from the late 1840s, around the time that Henri Murger wrote La Vie de Bohème

Then I went to Google Street View to see what the spot looks like now. Actually, this image is a little older than 2021, because I wanted one that showed La Samaritaine (currently swathed in scaffolding). Note that the buildings on the left side of the street have been cleared away and that only the church buildings remain on that side, making the street much wider than it was.

One thing I could not find anywhere was a view of the cafe’s facade. Of course, it is a very narrow street. All the pictures I found show the end wall only, which at some point lost the upper part that curved outwards.

I also took a virtual walk down the street on Google Street View. The building that juts out on the right (on the wall of which the advertising was once posted and where there is now only a small green sign) is No. 19, and it is at present a hotel. Beyond it, as you walk towards La Samaritaine, is No. 17, the Clinique du Louvre, a private surgical facility with an arched doorway. Beyond that, at No. 15, is a very narrow building (only slightly wider than its front door), and at No. 13 is the Café l’Auxerrois.

Just to orient readers, here is a bird’s-eye view of the street from about 1920. This was after the buildings beside the church had been removed in 1912, but before the expansion of La Samaritaine later in the 1920s, which annexed the easternmost block of the street.

My next thought was to find a copy of Murger’s book. The 1883 English translation I found on Google Books was called The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter. I’m not sure why the translator added the last three words, since the Café Momus and many other locations are not in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank, but on the Right Bank (one of the main characters, Rodolphe, lives in Montmartre, for example). Probably a decision by the publisher’s marketing department.

The café makes its first appearance on page 23, where we learn that Momus is “the god of play and pleasure.” (Actually, Momus is associated with satire. Martin tells me he was the god of mockery, expelled from heaven by Zeus for ridiculing the other gods.) The four main characters in Murger’s stories spend much of their time in this establishment.

Indeed, the café itself is the subject of Chapter XI, in which the proprietor complains to the four friends who frequent his upper floor that they are bad for business. They steal his newspapers, monopolize his backgammon board, use the place as a painting studio complete with models or as a noisy music room, make their own coffee instead of buying it from him, and corrupt the serving staff. All true. A truce is struck in which the bohemians agree to buy their coffee from him. This is quite a concession, because the one thing bohemians do not have is ready money.

Hosting bohemian artists has never been a lucrative enterprise. A non-fiction description of the Café Momus, written in 1862 by Alfred Delvau, in which the real-life characters include Murger himself and his friends, describes their way of saving money. One man would enter and order a coffee. The others would join his table one by one without ordering anything and share one little cup of coffee, four sugar cubes, and the accompanying glass of water.*

These stories remind me of the pre-pandemic days in which writers and freelance workers would settle into a café with a laptop and stay there for hours on end, having bought a single coffee. I always wondered how the proprietors stayed in business. It seemed a recipe for insolvency.

Apparently this was the case in mid-19th-century Paris, for in 1856 the Café Momus went out of business. In a notice from 1845, the place advertises billiards and newspapers among its amenities. Maybe the owners should have focused more on providing food and drink only.

The space then became an art-supply store (Colin, marchand de couleurs, at No. 19). When Charles Marville photographed the street in 1860s, Colin’s advertisement has replaced that of the Café Momus on the wall. There is also a little sign sticking out on the right side of the street that indicates that there was a pawnshop (Pelletier, Mont de Piété) in the building, too.

The art-supply store went out of business in its turn in 1890, around the time that a bust of Henry Murger was being installed in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

What about the other business Brodrick mentioned – the journal? It was time to rummage about in the Annuaire-Almanach du commerce, which lists all the businesses, first alphabetically, then grouped by type, then by address in Paris from 1857 to 1908 (this is a Gallica rabbit hole into which one can disappear for hours at a stretch).

As of the first issue, in 1857, the Journal des Débats is listed as the occupant of No. 17, the space next door to the former café. In 1870, Colin (and Pelletier, the pawnshop owner) are listed at No. 19 and the Journal (as well as Lenormant, a printer) are at No. 17. By 1908, No. 17–19 is the Imprimerie typographique du Journal des Débats, occupying both buildings.

So A. H. Brodrick was not quite right: it seems that the Journal des Débats was at first a next-door neighbour to the café, and later expanded, with its own printing facility, into the space vacated by the former café/art supply store. This conclusion is borne out by Alfred Delvau in 1862. Although the Café Momus had closed by the time Delvau wrote his book about Paris cafés, such was its fame that he devoted an entire chapter to its history, describing it as being “à un parpaing de l’imprimerie du Journal des Débats.”  Un parpaing is a stone block, so I think that means next door.*

Here is a view from the late 19th century showing the façade of No. 17 – you can just see the word “Débats” over the arched doorway (which today forms the entrance to the clinic).

What was this “unique” journal?

It began in 1789 as a verbatim record of the debates of the Assemblée Nationale (think Hansard) and evolved into a general political and literary journal. It was published almost daily, usually with four pages of closely printed type. It survived the Revolution, as well as Napoleon (who insisted it call itself the Journal de l’Empire), the Restoration, the Second Empire, the Third Republic, and the better part of two world wars. It continued to operate during the Occupation, which presumably tainted its reputation, because at the Liberation in 1944, it ceased publication.

The next step was to figure out what took its place. This slightly out-of-focus photo from the late 1940s indicates that Nos. 17 and 19 had become a hotel called Le Pays (there is a different hotel at No. 21). Today the hotel at No. 19 is called Le Relais du Louvre. 

If you want to take a closer look at the photograph above, go to this page, and zoom in.

So, Martin, I am compelled to conclude that the café you visited was what is now the Café l’Auxerrois at No. 13, an unpretentious brasserie that I can well imagine might cater to drivers for La Samaritaine, right across the road at that end of the street.

A look at the Annuaire shows that this space was not always a restaurant. Over the years it has served, among other things, as a wallpaper shop and a wine merchant’s premises.

Alas, the brasserie you visited in 1982 was not the inheritor of the illustrious mantle of the Café Momus. But when the Relais du Louvre reopens in May 2021 (it is currently closed because of the pandemic), perhaps you can reserve a room on the first floor. There you will be in the space once occupied by the bohemians.

Text by Philippa Campsie; historic illustrations from Gallica and the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris; modern illustrations from Google Street View; photo of bust of Henry Murger from Wikipedia.

*Alfred Delvau, Cafés et Cabarets de Paris, Paris : E. Dentu, 1862. Mine is a modern facsimile copy from Maxtor, purchased at one of my favourite Paris bookshops, Pippa.

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The Zone

Our visits to Paris always begin and end with a trip through the outskirts of Paris. The train or taxi from the airport travels through residential and industrial suburbs, passing warehouses, high-rise hotels, office buildings, and large sports facilities. Beside the highway or railway track there are often heavily graffitied walls.

On one memorable occasion, when the highway was blocked by a strike, an enterprising taxi driver took us on small roads through the banlieue, cutting through gas station forecourts, parking lots, and back lanes to avoid the congestion. It was a fascinating journey through a part of the region we would never otherwise have seen up close.

Normally, at least part of the journey takes us along the Boulevard Periphérique, with its signs indicating the various “portes” (gates) – highway exits with names that commemorate vestiges of an older Paris.

A hundred or so years ago, visitors to Paris entered the city through actual gates in actual walls. Here is one typical example, the Porte de Reuilly.

The gates in this 19th-century wall all looked much the same – unlike the distinctive barrières created for the customs wall by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux before the Revolution.

The 19th-century walls and gates remained largely in place until well into the 1920s, although demolition of parts of the wall began shortly after the end of the First World War.

The Enceinte de Thiers, as it was known – after Adolph Thiers, the prime minister who proposed it, rather than the one who actually built it – was a defensive wall constructed in the 1840s, along with a ring of 16 forts outside the wall to provide additional defence. Here’s a map of the completed system from 1852:

The military authorities went about their task with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Small suburban villages like Charonne and Clignancourt were chopped in half by the wall. Fifteen forts bristled from St-Denis in the north round the east and south sides of the city, while a single one guarded the west. Clearly nobody expected anyone to attack from that side.

Not only was the wall itself very wide, but there were buffer areas on either side taking up even more space. Immediately inside was a 150m-wide open area (about 500 ft) known as the “Boulevards des Maréchaux” – those wide boulevards around the circumference of the city, named for military leaders, which later turned out to be the perfect size for modern tramways.

Outside the wall, there was a ditch and beyond that, the military authorities decreed that a 250m-wide (about 820 ft) space be left unbuilt – a “zone non aedificandi” – to allow for a clear range of fire as enemies approached.

(Of course, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, the whole thing proved to be a colossal failure in protecting the city from shelling from a distance. Interestingly, when the French army turned against the Paris Commune, Adolph Thiers was among those besieging the city – from the lightly defended west. So much for military far-sightedness.)

That “zone non aedificandi” already had some buildings on it, from old farmhouses to former hunting lodges. To these were added guinguettes (informal drinking places that operated outside the city’s walls and regulations), ragpickers’ huts, gypsy camps, and eventually, railway yards. Over time, in certain areas, the space became a shantytown. Its inhabitants were known as Zoniers.

In 1912 and 1913, Eugene Atget photographed the Zoniers of Ivry, who favoured horse-drawn caravans for their homes and business premises (minus the horses, of course). The wheels were handy if you had to relocate on short notice.

Here is his photograph of the Porte d’Italie, showing shacks used for collecting and sorting scrap metal.

No, it isn’t pretty. But scrap merchants and ragpickers are a useful part of the recycling economy and they have to work (and live) somewhere near their sources of supply and their customers.

The flea markets at the edge of the city (St-Ouen, Vanves) are an outgrowth of this kind of business. Over the course of the 19th century, people who collected other people’s rubbish were pushed out of the city as municipal garbage collection was established in the 1880s by the Prefect of the Seine, Eugène Poubelle (forever commemorated in the French word for a rubbish bin – poubelle). And those who sold whatever bit and pieces could be sold set up shop in the north and south parts of the Zone.

Here is a picture of an early flea market at St-Ouen. As a friend of mine used to say, “Things were dirt cheap – with the dirt thrown in.”

Some areas supported market and allotment gardens, another appropriate land use near the city.

But some parts of the Zone remained as open ground, even after the wall came down. When I went to look for photographs of the Zone, I found a series of 17 photos held by the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. They were taken after the demolition of the wall. Here is one example.

At first, the photographs seemed to be banal views of a largely empty landscape. At first.

The record attached to the photographs states that they date from 1920–50, but they were clearly taken at the end of that period. The record also did not specify where they had been taken. That omission immediately made me determined to find out. Since certain buildings and objects appeared in several photos, I gathered they were all taken in the same general area. So I peered more closely at the photos for clues. At that point, I began to see all kinds of details.

A tall industrial chimney, a boulangerie/patisserie, a huge and unidentifiable machine, a distant church spire, large houses in the banlieue, lampposts and paved roads, including a tree-lined avenue. 

A few photos showed some small houses in the Zone (one with “chien méchant” written on the gate and another with a prominent electrical connection), so there were inhabitants and businesses. There were several parked cars here and there.

And people. A surprising number of people, a man working in a scrap yard, and some women and possibly children partly hidden in the long grass. Residents of the shacks? People from the nearby apartment blocks taking the air? Hard to tell, really.

What allowed me to identify the location was one of several multi-storey brick buildings in the frame. These were HBMs (habitations bon marche) or affordable apartments. In an excellent and well-illustrated online document about the HBMs of the 1920s and 1930s built around Paris’s circumference, I spotted a window that looked familiar. Sure enough, it was from one of the buildings in the photos. The caption gave the street name, and I was able to place the photos has having been taken near the Porte de Vincennes. The HBMs are still there, but what was once a terrain vague is now the site of an elementary school.

As for the date of these photographs, the crucial clue was one of the cars parked on the street, much more recent than all the others in view. I learned that the licence plate was of the type introduced in France in 1950, but I couldn’t identify the car itself.

So I turned to Donald Pittenger, who writes the Car Style Critic blog, and within a day, I had my answer. It is a Ford Vedette, c1953. The photos are more recent than I at first realized.

Finally, what struck me was the fact that on the other side of the terrain vague was the banlieue. You could just walk across and into it. This was possible only during the years after the demolition of the wall and before the construction of the Periphérique. Less than a generation.

Those apartment buildings visible on the left, built in 1936, still stand in the Commune of Saint-Mandé. The roof on the right, just visible above the trees, belonged to one of two hospices on the site, of which the Hospice St-Michel remains.

Once again, the engineers – this time, traffic engineers – prevailed, and cut through what might have been some reconnected neighbourhoods, united rather than divided by a strip of green. Once again, Paris was walled in, with only gates to the outer world, but this time the barrier consisted of traffic. Will the Periphérique last as long as the wall it replaced? Only time will tell.

Text by Philippa Campsie; map and photographs from Gallica and the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. Highway image from Google Street View.

If you would like to see a wide range of paintings and photographs of the walls, the gates, and the Zone, I highly recommend the meticulously documented and exhaustively researched website “Les Fortifs” by Laurent Baziller. The text is in French, but there are hundreds of images to browse through. 

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So many sights in Paris pique our curiosity and lead us to learn things we would not have learned otherwise. This blog post began as we thought about the beauty of Paris’s zinc roofs. One could argue that zinc roofs say “Paris” every bit as much as the Eiffel Tower.

Once, when we were in Paris at Christmastime, we were delighted to see zinc roofs featured in the windows of the Bon Marché department store. The window designers clearly appreciated these very Parisian features.

This display caused many passersby to stop, look, and look again.

Zinc is a relative newcomer to Paris. As with so much of the material world, the metal was known and used for centuries in Europe, India, and China well before it was “scientifically” identified as an element in 1746 (working knowledge often precedes scientific understanding). Only in the early 1700s was zinc on the path to being readily purified and manufactured.

Pure zinc has a bluish-white colour; it is hard and brittle at most temperatures and unsuitable for roofing. However, its properties can be changed by mixing it with other metals, such as tin or titanium, to make a more flexible and workable alloy.

Zinc is a very reactive element. When exposed to air and moisture, it forms a surface that protects the entire exposed sheet. It is even self-healing; if the coating is scratched, the surface can reform so that protection continues.

Longevity is another of zinc’s attractions, although that may be changing somewhat. Parisian restoration architect Patrice Roy told us that “roofs used to be waterproof for a century and a half, but because of acid pollution [today], it takes less time for holes to form [in zinc].”

The soft colour of zinc and its subtle matte finish are other important properties. Paris has many overcast days and zinc roofs take on and reflect the colours of the sky.

The use of zinc for Paris roofs can be traced to the work of a cleric called Jean-Jacques Dony of Liège in the early 19th century (Liège was part of France then; today it is in Belgium). Many clerical positions left ample time to pursue other interests and Abbé Dony used his free time to study chemistry, in particular the smelting of zinc. In 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte granted Dony a permit to extract zinc from a mine in Moresnet, roughly 50 km east of Liège. The mine was known as Vieille Montagne.

Five years later, Dony obtained a patent for his method of processing and refining zinc, which was a modification of pre-existing processes rather than a completely new approach.

New technologies often require newsworthy demonstration projects and Abbé Dony hit upon the idea of showing his gratitude to Napoleon by giving him a zinc-lined bath. Napoleon was apparently so thrilled by its light weight and utility that he took it on his campaigns, including his ill-fated invasion of Russia. The bath lasted longer than Napoleon and can still be seen at the Maison de la Metallurgie et de l’Industrie in Liège.

Napoleon was not the only one whose luck ran out. By 1813 Dony was deeply in debt and had to sell his patent and mining rights. He died in poverty in 1819. However, the company grew and prospered to become the largest zinc-producing company in the world. It also led to a rather strange political outcome for Moresnet, where the mine was located. (We’ve included this story at the end of the blog.)

We do not know when or where zinc was first used for roofing and cladding, but the earliest high-profile projects included a zinc roof for the church of St-Barthélémy in Liège followed by one for the Cathedral of St. Paul in the same city.

At that time, most Paris roofs were made of slate, most of it brought from the Loire Valley. Napoleon III and Haussmann changed that in the mid-19th century with the renovation of Paris. New construction on such a massive scale called for faster and more economical roofing construction. Zinc sheets were lighter than slate, less expensive, and easier to install, and they protected buildings from water leakage. They could even be melted down and recycled when buildings were demolished.

In addition, zinc could be used to create curved shapes or sharply angled roofs – opening the way for more elaborate roof designs to suit the tastes of the 19th century and making possible the tiny top-floor apartments to which maids and domestic staff were relegated.

The illustration below is from an early 20th-century trade catalogue from the Société Anonyme des Mines et Fonderies de Zinc de la Vieille-Montagne shows the kinds of shapes that were possible (along with zinc finials and decorative touches). Zinc was also used for drainpipes and eavestroughs.

Roofing was made from a zinc alloy that had been rolled to a specific thickness and cut to size. The catalogue includes an image of the rolling mill with the rollers in the background and stacked sheets of cut zinc on wagons on the left.

However, the new material had to be used carefully and skilfully. It wasn’t a case of plunking it down and waiting for 100 or so years to see how it was faring.

An important feature of zinc roofs are the zinc-covered seams that join the sheets, creating the characteristic stripy look of the roofs. Another image from the trade catalogue shows a cross-section of these standing seams.

Figures 5 and 6 show pieces of zinc bent and butting against a piece of wood. Figures 7 and 8 show the cap that covers the joint to keep rain out. The photo below shows how this type of installation looks on a roof in Paris.

Proper installation is crucial. Each sheet has an unexposed side underneath and here is where things can go wrong and reduce the lifespan of the zinc sheets. This photo shows what that looks like.

As we learned from an online article about the challenges of using zinc, the exposed surface of zinc receives its protective patina through a three-step natural process. First, zinc exposed to oxygen in the air produces a thin layer of zinc oxide, which in the second step reacts with water to form zinc hydroxide. In the third step, the hydroxide reacts with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to form a stable long-lasting surface patina of zinc hydroxyl carbonate. The reaction sequence is finished after this third step and the zinc is thereafter protected from the elements.

If the zinc is not properly installed, things can go wrong on the hidden underside. If there is water but no air, the reactions do not go to the third, stable phase. Instead, the unstable or reactive zinc oxide produces zinc hydroxide, which consumes zinc in the process. So long as there is water present, the process will continue to eat away at the back of the metal to produce what is called “white rust” and eventually it will eat through the zinc sheet. As we see in the photo above, the zinc simply flakes away.

In 2014, Paris began the process for recognizing zinc roofing on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Why “intangible”? It is not the zinc roofs themselves that need protection, but the techniques and knowledge of the Parisian roofers who work year-round to create, maintain, and repair the roofs of Paris and those in other parts of France. Zinc workers are getting on in years and it is hard to find apprentices to continue the work and traditions.

Of course, roofs are not the only use of zinc to be seen in Paris. Traditionally, many bistros had zinc-covered bars, although these have mostly been replaced by stainless steel, since red wine reacts badly with zinc. This one had a label: Les étains de Lyon (Lyon stainless steel).

You can also see galvanized railings with their characteristic surface crystals. Galvanizing is a zinc coating created by dipping metal in a bath of molten zinc, withdrawing it and allowing it to cool. As it cools one can see the formation of zinc crystals of various sizes. The faster the cooling, the smaller the crystals.

Zinc can even be used in organ pipes – some of the recitals we have heard in Paris churches may have been made possible in part by the presence of zinc.

Early 2021 finds us all in the same storm – Covid-19 – although we are in different boats. While we cannot yet plan our next trip to Paris, Covid-19 has given us time to think about what Paris means to us, and we realize now that the soft grey, stripy roofs of the city are an important part of the city’s beauty.

Blog text and photographs by Norman Ball; image of “white rust” from Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, originally posted on; trade catalogue images from Bibliothèques specialisées Paris.


A little epilogue about Moresnet.

In this map of the province of Liège from the early 19th century, created during the short period in which this area was part of France, you will see Liège to the west, on the River Meuse, and Moresnet at the very far east, near the orange border. On the other side of the border was Limbourg, one of the patchwork of duchies, counties, and principalities that at the time occupied the area to the east.

Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 led to a grand re-drawing of the map of Europe. Liège became part of the Netherlands. And nearby Moresnet, with its productive zinc mine, found itself on the border between the Netherlands and the German Confederation, coveted by both countries.

The delegates at the Congress of Vienna seemingly couldn’t make up their collective minds and created a tiny territory called “Neutral Moresnet” surrounding the mine property, to be jointly administered by the Dutch and the Germans. (When Belgium was formed in 1830, the Belgians got to participate, too.) Yet the currency and the legal framework remained French: the franc and the Code Napoléon.

This map shows Neutral Moresnet. It was less than 2 km wide at its widest and less than 5 km from north to south, in all about 3.5 square km. At the time of its creation, the place was home to fewer than 300 people.

The population swelled to about 3,000 as the mine expanded. In 1837, the Société des Mines et Fonderies de Zinc de la Vieille-Montagne was formed; not only did it manage the mine, but it ran schools, a hospital, and company shops (just like the old one-company mining towns of Canada).

All went well until 1885, when the mine was exhausted (other mining towns have faced this dilemma, too). Various money-making schemes were tried. A separate postal service, issuing its own stamps (hey, it worked in San Marino!), was, ahem, stamped out by the Belgian and German authorities. A casino opened in 1903, but also did not meet with official approval. Several gin distilleries operated. There were public festivals to attract tourists. This image from Le Monde Illustré, 4 January 1908, shows the members of La Société de Carnaval de Moresnet. They look like jolly fellows.

But the most original idea, launched in 1908, was to make the little territory into the centre of the study and use of Esperanto, the proposed universal language invented in the 1880s. The territory was to be called Amikejo, that is, “place of friendship.” The residents studied the language, hoping to provide an example for others. But with the loss of the mine, the territory’s raison d’être had evaporated. The Germans occupied the little territory and at the end of the First World War, with the Treaty of Versailles, it became part of Belgium.

Text by Philippa Campsie, maps and newspaper image from Gallica.

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Twenty questions

A happy Saint-Sylvestre to you all! A few of you may wonder what that means, but in France, New Year’s Eve is often called by the name of the saint whose day falls on December 31.

That fact got us thinking about similar “code words” in French that you pick up in passing or from newspapers and magazines. Such as the fact that “l’Hexagone” is a nickname for France, which is hexagon-shaped. Or that Paris is sometimes known as “Paname,” which may have something to do with Parisians’ fondness for Panama hats back in the day (opinions on the origins of the term differ). Or that Charles de Gaulle airport is also known as Roissy, after the commune in which much of it is located. And the Centre Pompidou is sometimes called Beaubourg after the neighbourhood it largely displaced.

The French also use code words in talking about government ministries. Newspapers often refer to the ministry’s location (like saying Whitehall when you mean the British civil service or the Pentagon when you mean the U.S. Department of Defense). In Paris, it’s the Quai d’Orsay for foreign affairs (shown below) or Bercy for finance and economic affairs, among many other examples. The technical term for this kind of substitution is metonymy – replacing a specific name with a related word.

The French also love initialisms and acronyms. Paris is full of them, from TGV to SAMU to CROUS. The first is a high-speed train, the second is a medical emergency services organization, the third is a student residence and/or restaurant.

Thinking about code words gave us the idea to put together 20 questions for Paris lovers. Something for those sluggish days after Christmas when newspapers often publish quizzes and huge crosswords. We’d also like to challenge readers to suggest questions of your own in the comments section, particularly questions that you’ve scratched your own heads over at some point.

Answers are at the bottom of the blog.

1. Two more examples of metonymy: which ministries are known by their locations in (1) the Place Beauvau and (2) the rue de Varenne?

2. Why did the rooster (coq) become one of the symbols of France?

3. Marie Curie is one of only five women interred in the Pantheon, but she was not the first. Who was?

4. The Arc de Triomphe at the head of the Champs-Elysées is not the only triumphal archway in Paris. How many others are there, and where are they?

5. This sketch by Edouard Manet show a fiacre. How did the horse-drawn cab get that name?

6. Which brilliant 19th-century composer in Paris was forced by her parents to marry a businessman 25 years her senior who disliked music, but later returned to composing with the encouragement of a friend, who eventually became her lover?

7. How did the former department store La Samaritaine get its name?

8. Between 1898 and 1902, a Paris church was constructed using structural iron and steel in an industrial style similar to that used for the buildings at the Exposition of 1900 or for railway stations. What is the church called and where is it?

9. Which writer who was dying in Paris said, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do”? Where was the room with the dire wallpaper?

10. Here’s a test for long-time readers of this blog. What is the object shown below? How was it used? Who developed it? Where could you see one now?

11. And another one for long-time readers. What is a chasse-roue? Where would you find one?

12. Where is the part of the city once known as the Point du Jour (Break of Day)? How did it get that name?

13. What taxidermist on the rue du Bac offers such things as stuffed zebras and preserved scorpions for sale?

14. In this postcard, you will see the name “Dufayel.” What is it advertising?

15. Which is the widest street in Paris (hint: even wider than the Champs-Elysées)?

16. What do the three Metro stations Arsenal (line 5), Champ de Mars (line 8), and Croix-Rouge (line 10) have in common?

17. This is a question once posed by a reader. Where was the original boutique of Rose Bertin, dressmaker to Marie-Antoinette (shown below in a portrait by Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun) and other grand ladies before the Revolution? What was it called?

18. Where are the Chevaux de Marly? Where were they before they were placed in their current location? And where were they before that?

19. If you were playing a word game such as Scattergories (Jeu du Baccalauréat) and you had to come up with a Paris street name for every letter of the alphabet, is there a Paris street name beginning with X?

20. In August 1976, a filmmaker mounted a camera on the front of his sports car and drove at full throttle through the nearly empty streets of Paris at dawn, from the Porte Dauphine to Sacré-Coeur, creating an exciting eight-minute film in a single take. Who was the filmmaker, and what was the name of the short film that resulted?


1. The Place Beauvau stands for the Ministry of the Interior and the rue de Varenne for the Ministry of Agriculture. The rue de Varenne is also the site of the Hotel Matignon, the official residence of the prime minister (that’s what references to Matignon mean in the papers). There is always a police officer stationed at the corner of the rue de Varenne and the rue du Bac, outside one of our favourite cafés: the Café Varenne. Norman calls it the best guarded café in Paris. This photo, taken by Google Street view one day when the café was closed, shows its typical security detail.

2. The choice of the coq has nothing to do with the particular qualities of the bird, but with its name alone. In fact, it’s a pun. In Latin, cockerel is gallus, which is similar to the word Gaulois, another name for the French.

3. Marie Curie died in 1934 and her remains were transferred to the Pantheon in 1995. But in 1907, Sophie Berthelot, who died on the same day as her husband, chemist Marcellin Berthelot, was buried in the Pantheon with her husband, respecting the couple’s request to be buried together. Only three other women are honoured in the Panthéon: Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz (Resistance fighter and social reformer), Germaine Tillio (Resistance fighter and political activist), and Simone Veil (Holocaust survivor and feminist politician). You’d think they could manage a few more…

4. There are four triumphal arches in Paris. Two were commissioned by Napoleon to celebrate his military victories in the early 19th century: the one at the head of the Champs-Elysées, commissioned in 1806, but not completed until the 1830s, and the smaller Arc du Triomphe du Carrousel at the opposite end, in the Louvre courtyard, surmounted by a figure in a chariot drawn by four horses resembling the horses of St. Mark in Venice (in Napoleon’s day, the actual Venice horses were placed there temporarily). The other two arches were commissioned by Louis XIV to celebrate his military victories in the 1660s: the Porte St-Denis and the Porte St-Martin, both of which replaced former fortified gates to the city. Today, they are located two blocks apart on the southern edge of the 10th arrondissement. In the postcard below, the Porte St-Martin is in the foreground, with the Porte St-Denis just visible in the background.

5. The Hôtel de Saint-Fiacre (named for an Irish saint who came to France in the 7th century) was an inn and tavern in the rue St-Martin. In the 17th century, the proprietor operated a successful business hiring out four-seater carriages and horses. They became known as fiacres. Because of this connection, St-Fiacre was eventually designated the patron saint of taxi-drivers.

6. Mélanie Hélène Bonis, known as Mel Bonis (1858 –1937), was a contemporary of Debussy at the Conservatoire and a student of César Franck. She wanted to marry poet and singer Amédée Landély Hettich, but her parents disapproved and forced her to marry Albert Domange, an unmusical widower with five children from a previous marriage. After seven years of strict domesticity, during which she had three children of her own, she met Hettich again and he encouraged her to return to composition, which she did to great acclaim, writing romantic works for piano, organ, chamber groups, orchestra, choirs and solo singers. She also had an affair with Hettich that produced an illegitimate child and a host of unforeseen complications. Here is a recording of her piano piece “Carillons mystiques” that includes photographs of her. We are amazed her work is not better known. She’d get our vote for a transfer to the Pantheon.

7. La Samaritaine was originally the name of a water pump on the Seine beside the Pont-Neuf with a sculpture of Jesus and the woman of Samaria (hence la Samaritaine) who spoke to him when she came to draw water from a well, as described in the Gospel of St. John. The pump stood there from 1608 to 1813. The shop that eventually grew into a large department store was located nearby and took the same name.

8. Notre Dame du Travail was constructed with an iron-and-steel-supported interior. It is located on the rue Vercingetorix in the 14th arrondissement. It is Norman’s favourite Paris church, and he wrote about it here.

9. Oscar Wilde is supposed to have uttered this line close to the time of his death in November 1900. He was staying at what was then called Hotel d’Alsace and is now simply l’Hotel, on the rue des Beaux-Arts in the 6th arrondissement. The wallpaper that won the battle with the writer was finally replaced 100 years later. You can stay in the Oscar Wilde room, which now has peacock wallpaper, once the hotel reopens after the pandemic. 

10. The picture shows a visual telegraph machine, invented by Claude Chappe in the 1790s and used to transmit messages over long distances that could be deciphered by sight from miles away. We told the story in this blog post. You can find a model in the Musée des Arts et Métiers, but about two dozen installations remain scattered about the country, such as this one near Narbonne.

11. A chasse-roue is a stone or metal bumper at the edges of gates through which horse-drawn carriages were designed to pass. Its function is to protect the sides of the gate from damage by the carriage wheels. You can see them throughout the older parts of Paris. We wrote about them in a previous blog.

12. The Point du Jour is at the southernmost tip of the 16th arrondissement, beside the river. It got that name because of a duel that took place there at the break of day on March 4, 1748, between Antoine Francois, the Count of Coigny and the prince de Dombe, over a perceived insult to the prince (an illegitimate grandson of the Louis XIV). The count was killed. The moral of this story: Do not insult illegitimate members of the royal family; it won’t end well.

13. Deyrolle at 46 rue du Bac has a unique cabinet of curiosities on its upper floor. On our last visit, we were very taken with a stuffed owl (the stuffed giraffe would never have fit into our house), but came to our senses. The business was founded in 1831, and has passed through several owners. In 2008, the shop was largely ruined by a fire, but it has been repaired and is as enthralling as ever.

Deyrolle also prints and sells those wonderful maps of the products of France that used to adorn French schoolrooms. For all we know, they still do.

14. Georges Dufayel gave his name to a massive department store or palais de la nouveauté on the rue de Clignancourt. It was known for house furnishings of all kinds and even had a cinema. Dufayel was not just a department-store owner, but also ran a successful publicity business, so was able to get his name on all kinds of surfaces. He is largely forgotten today, but his vast store was famous in its day, with a revolving beacon on top. We wrote about the man and his department store here.

15. The widest street in Paris is the avenue Foch in the 16th arrondissement, with its huge linear gardens on either side of the road. The avenue is lined with some of the most expensive real estate in the city.

16. Arsenal (line 5), Champ de Mars (line 8), and Croix-Rouge (line 10) are stations that were closed at the beginning of the Second World War and never reopened. If you pay attention, you may see them as you pass through them on a train that does not stop. Philippa remembers noticing Croix-Rouge on her way to classes at the Sorbonne as a student; once she had seen it, she never failed to look out for it on subsequent journeys. The Arsenal station has been used for training RATP staff. These three are among about 16 or so “phantom” Metro stations that have closed, or in some cases, were partly built but never opened. Proposals are sometimes made to convert the stations to other uses, but to date they remain as ghost stations.

17. The dress-shop known as Le Grand Mogol was originally on the rue St-Honoré, located where no. 149 is today. This is the address of the building used in the television series Dix Pour Cent / Call My Agent. In 1789, Rose Bertin moved her boutique to rue de Richelieu.

18. The chevaux de Marly are two statues of rearing horses with men trying to restrain them with ropes, created by sculptor Guillaume Coustou in 1739. The originals are now in the Louvre. But two sets of reproductions stand in the two locations where the originals once stood. They were first placed beside the Abreuvoir (a large basin for watering horses) at the Chateau de Marly (the building was destroyed in the Revolution, but the gardens and the pool remain in Marly-le-Roi). This image from Google Street View shows one of the horses on the left and a bit of the Abreuvoir on the right.

After 1795, the horses stood on either side of the Champs-Elysées where it opens into the Place de la Concorde. The originals were put in the Louvre in 1984. Their presence may account for the name of the open-air Café Marly in the courtyard of the Louvre: the food there is indifferent, but the view is excellent.

19. In fact, there are two Paris streets beginning with X: rue Xaintrailles in the 13th (named for one of Joan of Arc’s companions and supporters) and rue Xavier-Privas (named for an early 20th-century singer-songwriter) in the 5th.

20. Claude Lelouch (director of movies such as Un homme et une femme) made C’était un rendez-vous at dawn in August, when traffic was at its lightest. If you have not seen the white-knuckle ride, fasten your seatbelt and watch it on YouTube. Note the terrified pigeons desperately trying to get out of the way at several points. The film was shot with Lelouch himself at the wheel of his own Mercedes (although he later dubbed in the sound of a Ferrari to make it sound more exciting). According to one account, he was briefly arrested because he went through 18 red lights during those eight minutes, but the police officer did not charge him.

Thank you for your encouragement and comments over the course of this peculiar year, and we wish you and your loved ones a healthy and happy 2021. 

Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs of Notre Dame du Travail and the chasse-roue by Norman Ball. Postcards from our collection. Photo of Beaubourg from the Centre Pompidou website. Photos of Quai d’Orsay, the coq, Manet sketch, Marie Antoinette, Narbonne, avenue Foch from Wikimedia Commons. Image of La Samaritaine from Gallica. Images of Deyrolle interior and map from Still from Lelouch’s film from YouTube. All other images from Google Street View.

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Cloches et clochers

On April 15 of this year, as Paris remained in lockdown, one of Notre Dame’s bells rang out to mark a year since the fire that largely destroyed the cathedral’s interior. The bell’s name was Emmanuel, and a grainy still from a video shows what was happening inside the tower.

You can see a big, stationary bell (cloche) with someone standing beside it and pulling the clapper on a rope. Normally, the bells swing back and forth, so this must be a safety precaution in a building that is still being repaired.

Emmanuel is the oldest bell in Notre Dame, and dates from the 17th century. Its note is a low F-sharp. There are ten bells in all; the other nine are 21st-century creations. They were dedicated in 2013, to mark the cathedral’s 850th anniversary. They replaced an ill-assorted group of bells that were themselves 19th-century replacements for bells destroyed in the Revolution. Like the ones they replaced, the new bells all have names: Marie, Gabriel, Anne-Geneviève, Denis, Marcel, Etienne, Benoit-Joseph, Maurice, Jean-Marie. They were placed in the nave before their dedication, allowing the public a close-up look at the variety of designs.

You can see and hear them here:  the visuals show them swinging back and forth. To the best of my knowledge, the bells survived the fire along with the bell towers (clochers).

Later, on 25 August 2020, bells across Paris were rung to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in the Second World War.

Tradition has it that all Paris’s bells were rung on that August day in 1944. Perhaps not all, but many churches joined in. According to a story in the book Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, the parishioners of St-Philippe-du-Roule were miffed that their church bells were silent when other churches were ringing theirs. The parish priest, one Canon Jean Muller, had to remind his congregation that, ahem, the church actually had no bells, but this might be a good time to take up a collection for some.

This image, taken before St-Philippe-du-Roule’s roof was engulfed in a huge protective cover, shows only a single bell in a little cage. Ah well, it was wartime and I daresay the parishioners didn’t have much to spare.

The war was hard on bells. Thousands throughout Europe were confiscated and melted down for their component metals (bells are made of bronze, typically four parts copper to one part tin). French bells largely escaped the worst of this plunder. Italy, Austria, Belgium, and eastern European countries fared far worse and lost a precious heritage. Here are some of the bells awaiting their doom in the Glockenfriedhof (bell cemetery) in Hamburg.

But melting down bells was not a German innovation and it was not unique to the Second World War, as Stephen J. Thorne explains:

The practice of confiscating and transforming church bells into tools of war is not new. It was a longstanding tradition of European warfare that artillery commanders had rights over the bells of conquered villages, towns and cities. Napoleon, in particular, relished claiming this right, and added to his war coffers by requiring vanquished cities to buy back their bells. If they could not, the commanding general was entitled to dispose of them as he saw fit. Half the revenue would be his, the other half went to the central treasury. The practice was called “Rachat des cloches,” or “redemption of the bells.”

But the scale of the destruction in the Second World War was unprecedented. It has been estimated that 175,000 bells were confiscated and 150,000 destroyed. Many more were lost or damaged in air raids.

These numbers got me wondering how many bells there are in Paris today. Campanologist and musician Regis Singer did an inventory in 1995 and came up with a total of 878, although he believed that this was an undercount, since many remained in convents to which he was not given access. He thought the real number was closer to 1,000.

That’s a lot of bells. But Regis Singer was thorough and included bells that others might have overlooked.

For example, not all are in churches. The former mairie of the first arrondissement* has a fine bell tower, often mistaken for the tower of the next-door church, St-Germain-l’Auxerrois (the former mairie is on the left in this postcard view).

Not all are in towers. The chapel of St-Yves inside the Cité du Souvenir has five bells hung on the wall of the abutting building, like teacups on cup hooks.

One, on the former chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Jouy, just visible over the wall from the avenue Denfert-Rochereau, is so tiny it looks like a sparrow on the rooftop.

Some swing back and forth and sound as the clapper hits the inside; some are stationary and are hit with a tapper (typical of bells that mark time in clocks). Some are operated manually; others electronically.

Notre Dame’s Emmanuel isn’t the oldest bell – that honour belongs to the church of St-Merri, which has a 14th-century bell. Saint-Severin has one dating from the 15th century. The biggest in Paris, indeed in all of France, is Savoyarde, in Sacré-Coeur, weighing in at 19 tonnes. It could use some protection from the local pigeons.

Paris has only two carillons. The carillon, a set of bells used to play melodies, either manually from an oversized keyboard or electronically from a regular keyboard, is largely a northern French and Flemish tradition. Carillons may have as many as 40 bells. If you have seen the movie Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (2008), filmed in Bergues in northern France, you will remember the scene in the bell tower.

One of the two carillons in Paris is in the belfry beside the mairie of the first arrondissement (shown above) and the other is in the unusual church of Sainte-Odile in the 17th arrondissement, built in the 1940s. Sainte-Odile’s website proclaims that is has the only hand-operated carillon in Paris (the one at the former mairie is presumably operated electrically).

Although Paris has a wealth of bells, they are heard less than they used to be. A century ago, you would hear the Angelus early in the morning, at noon, and at dusk (usually three sets of nine peals each time). A few churches still ring the Angelus at noon and dusk, but the early morning set does not square with modern lifestyles. In 1995, Regis Singer commented sardonically that Parisians express no objections to the noise of sirens, alarms, or traffic, but claim to be disturbed by the bells, and in the 1990s demanded that the early-morning Angelus tradition be discontinued. Churches that do still ring bells in the morning do it at 9 a.m. rather than the traditional 6 or 7 a.m.

Personally, I can’t understand why anyone would want to silence bells. Norman and I lived for four years beside St. James Cathedral in Toronto, which has a full peal of English-style bells for change-ringing** as well as bells that toll the hours, half-hours, and quarter-hours throughout the day (although not at night). When we were married in the cathedral, I remember the bells ringing out as I entered the church and the way it made me feel as if my feet weren’t quite touching the ground. And for our recessional, we chose the finale of the first organ symphony by the blind composer Louis Vierne, which mimics the sound of bells.

Bells permeate French music. Debussy, Ravel, Bizet, and Massenet also wrote works that use the sounds of bells. Recently, after listening to a recorded piano concert in Paris by Jean Dubé, I bought his CD “Cloches” which features these composers and others. I am listening to it now, as I write.

Bells recall us to ourselves. When we lose them, we lose something that draws us together. I hope the bells of Paris will continue to sound, to mark the hours and the seasons, in celebration and grief and danger, to ring in better times than those we are living through now.

Text by Philippa Campsie. Images of St-Philippe-du-Roule, Ste-Odile, and Notre-Dame-de-Jouy from Google Street View; pictures of the dedication of Notre Dame’s bells, the Glockenfriedhof, St-Yves, and Savoyarde from Wikipedia. Postcards from our collection.

* This building is no longer used as a mairie. The four innermost arrondissements of Paris have merged administratively, and together use what was originally the mairie of the third arrondissement; the other three buildings have been given new functions.

** Change-ringing is a world unto itself and I would not presume to describe it in a footnote. But here is an overview.

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A November day some years ago. We are dawdling by the Seine when we spot a barge filled with coal being pushed up the Seine.

Two days later, we are exploring the Parc André Citroën. As we cross over to the right bank, we see demolition rubble being loaded onto another barge, this one with movable metal coverings over the holds.

On another day, after a visit to Le Petit Palais, we are crossing Pont Alexandre III and notice a colourful barge loaded with cardboard bales headed for a recycling depot.

Barges, or péniches, do the heavy work of getting bulk freight into and out of the city.*

The term péniche may be translated as a barge or a narrow boat. There are other uses for the term, such as péniche de débarquement, which is a military landing craft. For civilian craft, those that have their own power source are called péniches automotrices. But in everyday parlance, pretty much everything used in commercial water traffic gets called a péniche, whether it has its own power source or is pushed or towed by another vessel.

The term chaland, or canal barge, generally refers to the very narrow barges built for English canals. They are not used as modern cargo carriers, but are popular as dwellings and vacation boats. We once saw one of these boats in the locks at the Bassin de l’Arsenal.

Péniches have a long history in French waterways. Let’s look at a few historic images.

In the photo below, the boat in the foreground has the traditional look of a péniche. The turning basin of La Villette saw many péniches, coming, going, loading, and unloading. The pile of stone held by a wooden retaining wall was undoubtedly unloaded from a péniche at the site.

Canal Saint-Martin and La Villette roundabout. Paris (XIXth arrondissement), circa 1900.

The next photo, taken by Eugène Atget in 1923, provides a moody depiction of two péniches in the quays. The large buildings and boats disappearing into the background on the far bank of the Seine add to the sense of a still foggy morning. It is all rather dreamlike, but was probably cold and damp.

The quays (Winter). Paris, 1923. Photograph by Eugène Atget (1857-1927). Paris, musée Carnavalet.

This one, taken in the early 1930s by François Kollar (1904-1979) at the quai de Grenelle in the 15th arrondissement, says much about the look and traditional role of péniches. They provided Paris with large quantities of relatively low-cost, heavy, bulky goods. In this overhead view, workmen are unloading slender logs cut to uniform length. The pile in the background stands ready for the winter and would diminish as temperatures dropped. Before delivery to furnaces and fireplaces, most would be cut to shorter lengths.

This 1936 photo of péniches flanked by large warehouses at the Bassin de la Villette reminds one of the closeness of parked cars in Paris. The two most prominent péniches in the photo show the movable metal panels that protected cargo that was either sensitive to exposure to the elements or was likely to be stolen.

Péniches served as more than just freight carriers, though. The interior of this ambulance péniche, photographed in October 1914, is spartan. It appears to have only stretchers surrounding the central stove. Stretchers would have been in great demand at the time.

World War One. Interior of an ambulance barge. Paris, early October 1914.

A month later, this is the interior of one of the ambulance boats established by l’Union des Femmes de France. This interior is much less grim, with flowers and proper beds for patients.

World War One. Inauguration of the first ambulance boats set by the French Women Union. Paris, pont Alexandre-III, on November 26, 1914. Photograph published in the newspaper “Excelsior” of Friday, November 27, 1914.

The next photo is perhaps one of the most unusual péniche interiors and it comes with a story of links to fame and compassion. It shows the interior of the Louise-Catherine

Salvation Army : the Louise-Catherine barge, floating refuge. Paris. Photograph by Marcel Cerf (1911-2010). Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris.

Here’s the back story. Born in Munich in 1856, Maria Louise Katharine Breslau moved to Paris in 1874 to study art at the Académie Julian. In less than five years she had opened her own studio and dropped Maria from her name. Her career can be described as meteoric and in 1879 she joined the Salon de la Société National des Beaux-Arts in Paris where she exhibited her work and served on the jury. Louise-Catherine was the third woman artist and the first foreign woman artist to be honoured by France’s Legion of Honour. While a student, she made friends with Madeleine Zillhardt, who has been described as her muse, model, confidant, supporter, and companion of more than 40 years.

Upon Louise Catherine’s death in 1927, Madeleine Zillhardt inherited the bulk of her estate. With the support of Winaretta Singer, Madeleine purchased a péniche and named it Louise-Catherine. This was not destined to be an ordinary vessel. It was redesigned by Le Corbusier as a 160-bed Salvation Army shelter for homeless men. The Salvation Army closed it in 1994 after the hull flooded. 

Regrettably, the vessel, now owned by the Fondation Le Corbusier, sank during the February 2018 flood of the Seine, just as it was being renovated to become a new cultural space. We took this photo about a year before it sank. The vessel was refloated in September 2018 but its future is uncertain.

If one péniche honoured an accomplished painter, another artist used a péniche as a home and studio. In about 1925 the barge shown below was the Paris home of Henri-Gaston-Jules-Louis Buoy, known as Louis Buoy. He worked primarily in pastels and was noted for his female figures. 

The barge of the painter Bouy. Paris, about 1925.

Fashion designer Paul Poiret is less well known today than his rival Coco Chanel. However, Poiret was famous for the hobble skirt and harem pants (one hobbled women, the other freed them). At the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925, an invitation to dance on Poiret’s péniche Orgues must have been a prize reserved for the wealthiest or most well-connected. Surely no péniche had a more distinguished, or shall we say, theatrical ceiling. It was not Poiret’s only péniche. There were also Amours and Delights, for example.

International exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts. Dance hall aboard Paul Poiret’s barge, “Orgues”. Paris, 1925.

Delights featured up-to-date fabric curtains, cove moulding, and recessed lighting. What appears to be a movable divider probably separates the dining area from the kitchen. Delights seemed an excellent place to imbibe, dine, and enjoy life.

Evening on board a barge. “Delights” of Paul Poiret.

And if the temptations of Poiret’s péniches led one astray, there was always the Chapelle des Mariniers, Pont St-Michel, a péniche that held out the opportunities for redemption, shown here in an Yvon postcard from our collection.

But these unusual barges were the exceptions.

This early-20th-century postcard from our collection shows a more typical group. Péniches on both banks are strikingly similar in size and configuration. Those on the left bank show the large rudders and on the right bank the rather stubby bows. This is the same location as the photograph by Atget.

The history of the péniche cannot be separated from the history of French canals. And if there is one man who stands taller than others in creating the modern canal systems of France, it is Charles-Louis de Saules de Freycinet (1828-1923). Freycinet graduated as an engineer from the prestigious École Polytechnique and joined the French Civil Service as a mining engineer. He eventually rose to the position of Inspector General of Mines in 1883. He also served four terms as premier. 

Nineteenth-century economic growth and industrialization created a need for better transportation systems. Elected to the Senate in 1876 and named Minister of Public Works in 1877, Freycinet instituted the Freycinet Plan, whereby the government purchased existing railways and built extensive new ones. It also tackled the question of increasing uniformity in the canals and reducing the need for trans-shipment.

A law of August 5, 1879, established a minimum lock size of 39 metres long, 5.2 metres wide, and 2.2 metres deep. To pass through the locks, péniches were limited to 38.5 metres long, 5.05 metres wide, and 1.8 metres draught or depth. Clearly, a tight fit was the order of the day. New canals were built and many existing ones re-engineered to fit the Freycinet standard. 

Freycinet’s influence was so great that canal traffic doubled between the opening of the 20th century and the Second World War. His work endures. By 2001 there were 5,800 km (3,604 miles) of navigable waterways in France that corresponded to the Freycinet gauge and these accounted for 23 percent of waterborne traffic. Over time, though, the size of many vessels has increased beyond the dimensions in the Freycinet standard and today we see many of these larger vessels on the Seine. But even as vessels changed in size and configuration, the names remained the same: a péniche is a péniche is a péniche.

Text and original photographs by Norman Ball. Postcards from our collection. Historic photographs from Paris en Images and Bibliothèques specialisées de Paris.

* In 2019, Ports of Paris announced that more than two million tonnes of merchandise, from building materials to consumer products, entered Paris by boat, an amount that would otherwise have required 100,000 trucks to transport. 

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Thinking about the chambres de bonne last month reminded me of another distinctive space found in many older Paris buildings – the entresol. It, too, provided a space where servants might sleep, unless it was being used for storage or extra commercial space or the concierge’s apartment.

The entresol is the floor between the rez-de-chaussée (ground floor) and the first floor proper (sometimes called the étage noble). If it’s a complete storey, it is an entresol; if it covers only part of the rez-de-chaussée, it should really be called a mezzanine.

The name literally means “between floors,” and that makes me think of the movie Being John Malkovich, and the scene that takes place on floor 7½ of a New York office building. Here is a still (the actor is John Cusack) and you can watch a short film clip showing how he takes the elevator to this strange space here.

But that’s New York. Entresols in Paris have a staircase for access and most of them allow people to stand up straight. This model of a “typical” Haussmannian immeuble from 1860, which can be seen in the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, includes an entresol just above the ground floor.

The cross-section of the 1883 building that I showed in the previous blog has an entresol (in the image, it is labelled as the third floor, but its ceiling is lower than those of the floor below and the two floors above). It seems to serve as an office with a meeting room.

But entresols long predate Haussmann. They were well established when Antoine Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy wrote his architectural dictionary in 1788. In the entry on entresols, de Quincy explains that the first entresols were additions to grand houses with high-ceilinged ground floors. Given all that wasted space overhead, it made sense to insert some extra usable floor space. De Quincy describes these early entresols as “furtive,” “concealed from the exterior of the building.”

Later, when they became a planned part of the architecture, de Quincy notes the problem of how to incorporate them into the façade: “Being usually quite low and placed below the main floors, it is easy to see that one should consider them more like an ‘hors-d’œuvre’ in the decoration of the façade rather than an integral part. One cannot apply an ‘order’ to them, because it would be ridiculously small relative to those above it.”*

De Quincy also abominated the practice of having two entresols, which he called an “abus révoltant” (a revolting anomaly), like creating a small house inside a large house.

One of the earlier examples of an entresol in Paris is that of the Palais Royal, parts of which date from the 17th century. In this image of the exterior facing the rue de Valois, you can see a long vista with arched windows just above the ground floor. (This Google Street View photograph includes the bonus of a peek inside the staircase of No. 25).

An image from the late 18th century of the “Bœuf à la Mode,” a Palais Royal restaurant, shows a sign on the stairs indicates that further tables and private rooms are located on the entresol.

Within a few minutes’ walk of the Palais Royal, you can see entresols everywhere. The Place des Victoires, created in the late 17th century by Jules-Hardouin Mansart, is awash in them. Their windows form the upper part of the arches above the doors and shop windows.

Streets such as rue des Petits Champs contain many examples. On one corner, the original windows remain.

On another corner at the same intersection with the rue des Moulins, much of the space has been filled in and the windows are smaller.

In the Place Dauphine on the Ile de la Cité, one wonders if there really is enough space to stand up straight in either the rez-de-chaussée or the entresol of certain buildings. This place dates from the early 17th century, and although most of the buildings have been altered and added to over the years, the spacing of the lower floors is probably original. Tall people, mind your heads!

At the other extreme, here is an image of 25, rue de la Harpe (built circa 1800), taken in about 1912 by the largely forgotten photographer Charles Joseph Antoine Lansiaux (1855–1939). The entresol is vast and its façade ornate.

Rez-de-chaussée et entresol, 35 rue de la Harpe. Paris (Vème arr.). Photographie de Charles Lansiaux (1855-1939). Tirage au gélatino-bromure d’argent, vers 1917. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

Entresols feature in quite a few of Lansiaux’s many Paris photos. Here is one of the courtyard behind 8, rue Royale.

One famous entresol was at No. 7, Place Vendome, the home of the Club de l’Entresol in the 1720s. It was a place for influential aristocrats to discuss politics and foreign affairs, and that, predictably, led to its demise only a few years after its inception, since discussing these sensitive topics was frowned on by King Louis XV. Alas, the actual space is long gone, although the façade facing the square survives. Whatever was once behind the façade was replaced in 1930 by a modern building with a big courtyard that you can walk through.

Many major buildings have entresols. The Louvre, of course. The Opera Garnier has two (de Quincy would not approve), mostly used for dressing rooms. Entresols are a feature of many arcades, often with windows looking into the covered shopping area. Some are offices, some are loges for the concierge, and we have eaten in more than one restaurant entresol in an arcade. You get an interesting view up from up there. Here is the Passage Choiseul, photographed by Eugène Atget.

Passage de Choiseul. Paris (IInd arrondissement), around 1907. Photograph by Eugène Atget. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

Once you start looking for them, you will notice entresols in all kinds of central Paris buildings. Hotels. Stations (well, those are really mezzanines). Here is a postcard of the Rue de la Paix from our collection, and the entresol has its own little awnings above the windows.

Probably the most famous entresol-dweller was Colette, shown here in 1930 of the Palais Royal with the unmistakably shaped window behind her. And a cat. Both looked faintly annoyed at being disturbed by the photographer – André Kertesz.

The entresol seems to have become extinct as an architectural feature during the 20th century. As with the chambre de bonne, some entresols have become bijou residences in trendy areas. In preparing this blog, I lingered over a few real estate ads for entresol apartments. They may be a bit noisier than chambres de bonnes, being much closer to the street, but then one need not use an elevator (an advantage in pandemic times). They look rather cosy.

As the Andrews Sisters used to sing, I can dream, can’t I?

Text by Philippa Campsie. Still photograph from “Being John Malkovich” from YouTube. Model of Haussmannian building from the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. Image of the “Boeuf a la Mode” from ResearchGate. Lansiaux photos from Paris Musées. Atget photo from Paris en Images.  Kertesz photo of Colette from Christies online. Other images from Google Street View or our postcard collection.

* “…se trouvant ordinairement fort bas & placé au-dessous des grands-étages, il est facile de voir qu’on doit le considérer plutôt comme un hors-d’œuvre dans la décoration d’une façade que comme devant en faire partie intégrante. On ne sauroit lui appliquer aucun ordre, car cet ordre seroit ridiculement petit eu égard à ceux qui le surmontoient” (Encyclopédie Méthodique: Architecture, p. 345).

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Chambre de bonne

When I was a student in Paris, I lived in a chambre de bonne (maid’s room) at the top of a building on the corner of the rue du Ranelagh and the rue Raynouard in the 16th arrondissement.

My room contained an iron camp bed (the elderly mattress sagged in the middle, so I slept in a shallow trench) with a shelf over it; a table with a hot plate on it, a wall cupboard over it, and a stool under it; a sink (cold water only); and an immense wardrobe with shelves inside. Between the wardrobe and the wall was a short railing for hanging clothes. The window opened toward the courtyard, but over the roof opposite I could see the tip of the Eiffel Tower, which cheered me every morning.

This is a Google satellite view of the rooftop where I lived. I think my window was the one to the left of the red brick chimney in the middle.

The toilet à la Turque (two places to put your feet, a hole in the floor, and a chain that released a violent flow of water) and a separate room with a grimy shower stall were down the corridor.

The house had what is called “double circulation” – two completely separate sets of entries, staircases, elevators, and corridors that did not intersect. The front version was attractively lit, with an ornate ascenseur around which carpeted stairs rose. The back one had bare floors and dim lighting, and the ascenseur was severely utilitarian. I used the front staircase twice: the day I arrived and the day I left. Otherwise, I entered by a door marked “Service” to the left of the entrance to the parking lot.

A narrow corridor took me to the back of the building and a gloomy courtyard. The staircase and the second ascenseur led off the courtyard; the stairwell was not fully enclosed but had openings to the outside air. It was cold, but it was not musty. I would take the ascenseur to the 7th floor. I was lucky; in most Paris apartment buildings, the elevator does not go to the servants’ floor, if indeed the back staircase has an elevator at all.

On each landing of the back staircase, one or two doors led to the kitchens of the main apartments. This was the route taken by the rubbish bins on their way to the courtyard. It was also how I entered the apartment of my employers to fulfil my domestic duties. For 10 hours a week, I was a bonne à tout faire (the lady of the house preferred to call me an au pair).

Although I was surprised by this severe separation between the parts of the building used by the owners of the flats and the backstage area for the servants, I realized right away the benefits of having a place with its own entrance, where one could come and go unremarked. I daresay the original occupants of such rooms preferred this arrangement to a room within the apartment, even if the heating was dodgy, the toilet was manky, and the furniture had seen better days. Liberté: yes! Égalité: ah, no. Fraternité: that depended on the neighbours.

Each apartment below the sixth floor had the use of two chambres de bonne. The other one belonging to the family I worked for – across the corridor from mine with a view over the street – was occupied by one of my employer’s teenaged sons, who evidently appreciated the independence it offered. The other residents of my corridor and of the floor above (there were two floors of these rooms) were students and young working people of all nationalities. I met a few of them (how could one not?), but did not get to know any of them well.

What strikes me now is the fact that this building dated from 1934. The original occupants had a mere five years to maintain this stratified way of life before war came and turned everything upside down. After the war, servants were scarce. Indeed, they were getting scarce before the war. The designer of 28, rue du Ranelagh was fighting a rearguard battle to preserve an outdated version of domestic life. Already, other designers, encouraged by improvements in elevator technology, were making desirable apartments on the top floors that offered views over the city.

Curious about this anachronism, I went in search of the person responsible for this building. I came up short until I discovered that the building has two addresses: the current one on the rue du Ranelagh and an older one on the rue Raynouard.

The owner’s name was Jean-Maurice Lesage (1869–1934). He was an engineer agronomist and a grand officier of the Légion d’honneur for his services to agriculture, particularly as a director at the Ministry of Agriculture (he was given this honour at the same time as André Citroën and Vincent d’Indy). In this group photo from the Petit Journal of 11 janvier 1931 showing the new grands officiers, he is the (only) one in a top hat.

In 1908, Lesage had commissioned a builder to create a two-storey house on this spot, where he lived for about 20 years with his family (five daughters, one son, all but one surviving to adulthood). Given the address, I assume his house faced the rue Raynouard. On the other side of the intersection was a gasworks (where Radio-France is now).

In 1930, by which time he and his wife Lucie-Aline-Marie Lucet were empty nesters, he obtained a building permit for an eight-storey structure on the same plot of land. The summary of the permit that I found online notes “pas d’architecte.” Does that mean no architect was involved, or that the architect’s name is not noted in the building permit? I don’t know.

I imagine Jean-Maurice as a fellow of the old school, who probably formed his ideas about buildings and domesticity in the Belle Époque. After all, he was the one wearing a top hat in 1930 when most other men wore fedoras or homburgs. He died just as the block was completed in 1934.* According to one source, the construction ruined him financially.

Why did Jean-Maurice Lesage consider two floors of servants’ quarters a necessity in 1934? We cannot know, but we can trace the origins of the chambre de bonne that influenced his thinking.

According to a book about the lives of domestics in 1900,** the use of the top floors of apartment buildings as servants’ quarters was the outcome of economic (that is, real estate) forces and social changes. By the second half of the 19th century, land prices in Paris were high. So landowners made full use of new regulations that allowed increased height for buildings, provided that the roof leant back and away from the street (the permitted height depended on the width of the street). The spaces created under the roof usually had sloping ceilings and were considered appropriate only for servants. Meanwhile, a growing desire for greater privacy for the families in large apartment buildings meant banishing servants’ accommodation from the apartment itself and placing it out of sight. Et voilà: the chambre de bonne is born.

Two cutaway drawings illustrate the transition. The first is by the illustrator Bertall, from Edmond Texier’s Le Tableau de Paris, published in 1853, and it shows a building with only five storeys. The top floor is occupied by a jovial artist and friend, a bedridden man, and a family with four children.

The second is an illustration by Louis Poyet from a book called L’Electricité dans la maison, published 30 years later, in 1885. It shows seven floors (although here the bottom one is a cellar) and the top floor is a neat row of identical chambres de bonne. They are empty, because the maids are at work. Given the subject of the book, the important feature here is the electric bell in each room, so that the family can summon a maid when needed – presumably in the middle of the night, because that would be the only time the rooms were occupied.

Today, these little rooms are considered mini-apartments, sometimes called “chambres de service” (a gender-neutral version of chambre de bonne) or, in real-estate-speak, “studettes” for mini-studios. They are highly sought after and they are not cheap. According an article in Le Figaro, there are about 115,000 of them in Paris and they are defined as dwellings of 15 square metres or less without a full bathroom.

For many people, the chambre de bonne is their first accommodation in Paris. One blogger got her friends to draw the layouts of the places they had first lived. They looked familiar.

In January 2020, we visited a friend who had bought a chambre de bonne in the 16eme. It had recently been renovated after a fire, and was cozy and attractive. It had a compact kitchenette, discreet storage, and its own shower (the toilets across the hall were clean and up-to-date). It also had a spectacular view over the city from its western edge. The elevator, however, only went as far as the floor below.

To me, the chambre de bonne illustrates the comments made at the beginning of the documentary Paris, Roman d’une ville:

Those who build a city disappear, the city remains. Cities do not count the time as we do.

It’s a little bit like an apartment – the day we move in, we make changes, and then one day we move out, and those who come after us live with the decisions and changes we made. They use it as they wish, without questioning how the changes came to be.

Lesage created a certain kind of building with rooms on top for domestic servants who slept and dressed there, but otherwise spent all their time at work in the larger apartment. Today, such rooms have become miniature apartments where people cook and eat meals, watch television, study for exams, and even carry on small businesses. All of us live with decisions made in the past by people like Jean-Maurice Lesage, who were old-fashioned even in their own day. We seldom stop to question those decisions.

Still, I would like to belatedly acknowledge M. Lesage for installing a second ascenseur that went all the way to the seventh floor. Merci, monsieur.

Text by Philippa Campsie, photograph of 28 rue du Ranelagh by John Campsie, other images from Google and Gallica.

* He may never have had a chance to occupy an apartment in the building. His death record notes that he died at 16, rue Oudinot, the address of a clinic or hospice run by Augustinian nuns. His wife survived the war and her husband by 20 years, dying in 1954 in La Celle–St-Cloud in Yvelines. I don’t know if she ever lived in the building.

** Anne Martin-Fugier, La place des bonnes : La domesticité feminine à Paris en 1900 (Paris: Grasset, 1979).

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One of our favourite TV programs, Dix Pour Cent/Call My Agent,* opens with the following image, taken either from the roof of the Louvre or from a drone. It is never on screen for more than a few seconds, and I took a screen shot so I could examine it more closely.

In the foreground is the rue de Rivoli, with its recognizable arcades – they also appear in many scenes at street level. On the left is the rue de Marengo. The church on the right is the Oratoire du Louvre. I found another image of this exuberant if rather hemmed-in church in our postcard collection.

I wanted to take a closer look at the image of the commercial building, because the series maintains the fiction that it has a rooftop terrace – several important conversations and a big party take place up there. The still image does not show anything of the sort, but to be doubly sure, I checked on Google Satellite. And there I found something interesting.

First, it shows that what appears to be a simple rectangular block is actually wedge-shaped. And second, what on earth is that coffin-shaped structure between the commercial block and the church?

It took me a while, but eventually I learned that the answer lies in the building’s history. The block that surrounds the coffin, which bears the street address of 149 rue St-Honoré, was once part of the Grands Magasins du Louvre, a massive department store that faced the rue de Rivoli, founded in 1855 and expanded several times after that. This part, to the east of the rue de Marengo, was an annex to the main building, and the coffin-shaped space was the Hall des Tapis – an opulent display area for rugs and carpets.

As I hunted for images on the Internet, I discovered that the Hall des Tapis had recently been renovated to form the headquarters for the fashion company Maje.

A new floor has been created at the level of the balustrades over which the rugs are hanging in the postcard image, and the chandeliers have gone, but the rest of the space has been left with its columns and glazed roof. You can see a series of photographs on the website of the architectural firm that carried out the restoration (DTACC).

I also found out that this part of the Grands Magasins du Louvre once served as a military hospital in the First World War, associated with the Val de Grâce.

These interesting discoveries kept me absorbed for some time, but they didn’t answer my original question about the rooftop in the television series. So I went back and took a still from one of the scenes in which it is featured.

Other than a stellar view of Norman’s beloved chimneypots, it didn’t offer a huge amount to go on, but it was enough. I cruised over the rooftops of Paris with Google satellite view in 3D and eventually identified the distinctive roofs in the distance on the far left as the tops of the buildings on the north side of the Place de la République and the building sticking up on the right near the crane as a hotel called the Renaissance Paris République.

This information allowed me to do a bit of triangulation, and eventually I found that the rooftop scenes had been filmed on top of  Le Bon Coin, an Internet sales company with offices on the rue du Faubourg St-Martin and a rooftop venue with extraordinary views over the city. Here is the view facing in a different direction.

By now, I was rather enjoying my vol d’oiseau above the city, peering down into courtyards and tilting the view to admire the skyline. It was a rainy afternoon, and I had time to spare. So I took a little promenade from the original building along the rue St-Honoré. And once again, I encountered a surprise.

Not far from the intersection with the rue de Castiglione, I spotted an oddly curved wall inside a courtyard.

I tried 3D, angled it a bit and came at it from the west.

I went in as close as I could (the image started to break up). But I could see little windows in the upper part of the wall.

Could this be part of one of the old walls of the city? I needed to compare it with some old maps. (If you love old Paris maps, and you have some time on a rainy afternoon, I recommend this link.)

After several false starts, I found a 1700 map by Alexis-Hubert Jaillot that showed what is now the Place Vendôme, formerly the Place Louis le Grand. Since the rue de Castiglione runs north into this square, it helped me zero in on what is now the intersection with the rue St-Honoré. There I found the Couvent des Feuillants (a Cistercian monastery, built in the early 17th century). So not part of a wall, then. I noticed a church with a rounded apse. Bingo.

Now I knew what I was looking at, and looking for, I was able to place it in an earlier map, one by Matthaüs Merian, dated 1615. In this bird’s-eye view from the west of the city, the rounded apse on the east side is not visible. Just above the red circle showing the Couvent, you can see the nearby city gate (the Porte St-Honoré) in the wall of Charles V, with a bridge over a narrow moat. The convent is between that gate and a second moat that circled the whole of the right bank. The inner moat joined the outer moat at the Porte St-Denis. So the Couvent was effectively on an island formed by the two moats and the Seine.

Between the convent and the Seine are a manège for equestrian exercise and sports (you can see little horses in the picture) and the gardens of the Tuileries, laid out by Le Nôtre.

Finally, to confirm what I now knew, I found a photograph on French Wikipedia showing the remaining wall of the Feuillants church.

During the early years of the French Revolution, the monks were evicted, the contents of the church were removed, and the site became the meeting place for a group (Club des Feuillants) that supported a constitutional monarchy. The location was handy for the Assemblée Nationale, which had taken over a building that had been part of the manège (it had been built in the early 18th century and so is not visible on Merian’s map).

As you can imagine, it didn’t end well for members of the Club when a more radical element (the Jacobins) came to power.

The rest of the church (except, oddly, this curved wall) was demolished in the early 19th century. A painting by Etienne Bouhot shows the ruins in 1808.

My little journey to find a particular rooftop from a 21st-century television series had taken me over central Paris and back several centuries. I have mentioned here only the highlights of my rainy afternoon skimming the rooftops of Paris (I went down a few additional rabbit holes, as one does). For now, this will have to be the next best thing to being there.

Text by Philippa Campsie; photographs from Google Satellite View, Wikimedia, and stills from the France 2 production of Dix Pour Cent.

* Dix Pour Cent / Call My Agent is a series about an agency that represents French actors and film-makers. Each episode features at least one famous French actor (Natalie Baye! Isabelle Adjani! Juliette Binoche!), and the series as a whole follows the ups and downs of the agency, its four principals, and four assistants – financial woes, shifting alliances, love affairs, breakups, betrayals, and reconciliations. It’s a France 2 production, available on Netflix in French with English subtitles. Three seasons of six episodes each are available and a fourth season is in production.

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A view of the pandemic (so far) in five masks

To readers: please be advised that this blog contains no Paris content whatsoever. We will return to our regularly scheduled comments on Paris next month.

Mid-March: homemade.

The lockdown catches us by surprise. On Monday we are in the library, collecting our books and chatting with a friend, on Wednesday we celebrate an anniversary with brunch at a bagel shop and a visit to the art gallery, on Friday we shop for food at the St. Lawrence Market. The following Monday, everything closes. I’m glad we picked up those library books. We’re going to need them.

At this point, the authorities implore us not to buy face masks, which are needed for front-line workers. A friend cobbles together some masks from cut-up bandanas, and her sister drops them off. Literally drops. She stands, masked, on our porch, holding them in a bag, and rather than put the bag directly into our hands, she throws it at our feet. We understand. We have no idea what to do, either. But having a mask seems like a good idea.

April: couture.

Life hasn’t changed much. Norman is retired, and I am a freelancer, accustomed to working from home. We learn to “attend” church online. We rather like the lack of traffic, the quiet, the clear air. We shop locally for groceries, but cannot use cash. I give an otherwise unusable five-dollar bill to a panhandler, wondering if he will be allowed to spend it somewhere. We make online donations to charities and struggling arts organizations. We write to far-flung friends and family and talk to neighbours. I follow a musician called Matthew Larkin on Facebook who is creating music in deserted Ottawa churches.

The weather is cold and wet.  We go out for fresh air and exercise, sometimes alone, sometimes together, trudging down streets in our neighbourhood we’ve never noticed before, avoiding other people by crossing the road.

In a shop nearby two stylists with sewing machines are making masks. They are elegant and form-fitting, but the elastics are tight. I feel my ears are being pulled forward day after day. Norman cannot wear his hearing aids with the masks, because the ear loops dislodge them, and his glasses fog up. Once masked, he is deafer than usual and cannot see well. Over time, he learns to control his breathing so at least he can keep his glasses on.

Meanwhile, the world turns upside down. We once prided ourselves on using transit for most outings. Now if we cannot get somewhere on foot, we take the car. We once avoided single-use plastics and disposable items. Now they represent protection and sanitation.

Overzealous bylaw enforcement officers hassle people on park benches. Someone drapes benches with yellow plastic tape marked “Caution.” I contact my city councillor. No, he says, benches are for those who need them. City staff remove some of the tape. I remove the rest.

Signs appear warning us to keep a distance of three geese from each other. The local geese are unmoved by this appeal to their civic-mindedness and refuse to line up neatly.

May: disposable.

As the weather warms up, tiny insects appear by the lake in swarms; my mask keeps them out of my nose and mouth. Disposable masks are now widely available, so we buy a dozen. They’re easier on the ears.

We line up outside food shops, and the city puts orange cones on the roadway to create more room for the queues, because the sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate them. We have long since finished our library books, and the pile of bought-but-not-yet-read books is dwindling. An unprecedented situation.

We come up with new projects. Norman takes down a dead tree. I digitize my dad’s old 35mm slides (here’s an example from 1969, showing my parents).

Norman builds a new stone pathway. I try new recipes (I don’t bake bread, but I make a lot of pesto – see recipe below).

June: imported.

We finally return our library books and recycle our wine bottles. I cut Norman’s hair. We and our neighbours are gardening obsessively. A neighbour gives us a hydrangea. I give someone else a rose of Sharon.

A local dress shop reopens, selling masks by an American fashion company. I choose a cotton one in a summery fabric with adjustable ear loops. A day later, I go back to buy another for my stepdaughter.

Walks are replaced by bicycle rides. I venture farther and farther along the waterfront bike trail. Parts of Toronto’s waterfront are quite wild, and I spot garter snakes, rabbits, and bright little songbirds. The mask keeps cottonwood fluff out of my nose and mouth. With mask, sunglasses, bicycle helmet, baggy shorts and T-shirt, I am for all intents and purposes unrecognizable. I enjoy the anonymity.

The parks are full of people. Family togetherness takes various forms, including the parent walking with a child while barking into a cellphone about return on investment or marketing budgets, as the child plods along, staring glumly at the ground.

We arrange physically distanced drinks with a friend or two at a time on our back porch. They bring their own glasses. I serve snacks that require no handling on my part, arranged on individual trays. Guests come and go along the driveway beside the house. They remove their masks once they are seated on the porch.

July: seasonal.

I have my hair cut and my first proper visit with my mother since March. She has dementia and lives in a long-term care facility. Zoom visits didn’t work; she couldn’t understand that she was supposed to look at the screen and kept staring at the staff member who’d arranged the call, complaining loudly that she had no idea what was going on. Window visits weren’t much better: we couldn’t hear each other, she would blow kisses for a minute, then complain of the draught and slam the window shut. We ended up with phone calls, in which she just kept asking when she was going to see me.

The July meeting takes place outdoors, under a translucent canopy that does nothing to shield us from the heat of the sun. I fill out a questionnaire and have my temperature taken. Given the heat, I am surprised that I register as normal. I wear a mask, as do all of the staff members, but my mother does not. She has had a fall and broken a tooth during the lockdown. Her hair is longer than I think I’ve ever seen it. But she is safe and well. I tell her about what is happening and she keeps repeating, “It’s all so strange.”

I ride my bike in the mornings before it gets too hot. There is usually a bit of a breeze by the water.

The local bookshop reopens and we buy books on race relations and indigenous peoples. The pandemic has exposed fault lines; we need to be better informed.

I find the gradual reopening almost more stressful than lockdown because the rules are too vague and differ from place to place. On my bike rides I see more and more people either without masks, or wearing them as chinstraps or hanging from one ear. The city finally makes the wearing of masks mandatory in indoor public spaces and on transit. Some people protest, most people comply.

I sit down to write a blog about Paris, but I can’t focus on it. So I write this instead.

After a while, I go back to the dress shop and buy another designer mask, this one in a silky fabric and a darker colour. For fall. I reckon I will still need one when the weather cools down.


Pandemic Pesto

In a food processor blend together:

8 oz / 225 g spinach

⅓ to ½ cup olive oil (to taste)

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

½ cup (125 ml) grated Parmesan cheese

3 garlic cloves

¼ cup chopped cashews (I’ve also used pistachios)

Any green herbs you like in any quantity you want: dill, basil, chives, oregano, parsley – all work well

Salt and pepper to taste

Use in potato salad, pasta dishes, over steak, slathered on a slice of baguette…

Bon appétit !


Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie. Thanks to Gill and Meg Morden for the homemade mask.

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