A mutable feast

Last week, we were considering Paris in the 19th century, and how much has changed since then. But Paris is not just a moveable feast, it’s a mutable feast, and it has changed even since the 20th century. Think of the changes you’ve seen yourself in the last decade.

Fifteen years ago (when Norman took the photograph shown above), we arrived in Paris with a suitcase that had no wheels, a camera that required many rolls of film, and money in the form of travellers’ cheques. Our first stop was the American Express office on the rue Scribe, near the Opera. The place was bustling – this is where people came to cash cheques, make reservations for tours, or pick up mail. It sounds unbelievably quaint, but it was normal practice at the time.

Today, suitcases have wheels, cameras are digital (if not incorporated into mobile phones), and all you need is a bank card to withdraw money from an ATM. The American Express office near the Opera has shrunk from its former magnificence to a tiny little place with a small counter and a few clerks.

On that same trip we paid for our purchases in francs, rode on a city bus with an open platform on the back, and marvelled at the number of people smoking Gauloises or Gitanes at zinc bars in cafés. We stayed in a small hotel with flocked wallpaper and a chenille bedspread. It was heaven.

Or go a bit farther back… When I was a student in Paris (never you mind when), it seemed that half the cars on the road were Deux-Chevaux. I used to shop at La Samaritaine for necessities (« On trouve tout à la Samaritaine » was the store’s slogan). There were even a few “Vespasiennes” (outdoor facilities where men could urinate half in private, half in public) here and there. A vanished world. (One remaining Vespasienne still stands on the Boulevard Arago, rather the worse for wear.)

Simone Signoret said that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, and she had a point. It’s fun to remember what was there, but so much has changed for the better. Who would want to go back to the time before the RER, the Eurostar, or Velib’? Or the days when most public toilets were unspeakably foul? (Does anyone else remember that horrible shiny toilet paper that felt as if it had been waxed?) Was the city better looking when so many of its buildings were covered with dark soot? Was the second-hand smoke of Gauloises really all that wonderful? Was life more comfortable when many people went twice a week to the public bains-douches because many apartments did not have modern bathing facilities and water came from a public tap in the courtyard?

(There is no question that Paris is cleaner than it used to be. In Paris in the Fifties, author Stanley Karnow notes that in the middle of the 20th century, only 15 percent of Paris dwellings had bathrooms and French soap consumption was the lowest in Europe. I can attest to having met French people who considered that having a bath more than twice a week was not merely unnecessary but bad for the health.)

On the whole, there only a few things I would want to bring back. I rather miss that bus with the open platform at the back. I notice with regret that more and more courtyards and laneways are protected with digicodes, and have become essentially gated communities. Some of the old covered markets have closed, while fast-food joints have proliferated. (In fact, indifferent food is everywhere, although it is still possible to find amazingly good food.) Gentrification in many areas has meant the death of small local shops and their replacement with boutiques catering to tourists and BoBos.* And, of course, I miss the Deux-Chevaux, one of my favourite cars.

At the same time, new buildings and spaces in Paris offer new delights, from the Cité de l’Architecture at the Palais de Chaillot in the west to the Viaduc des Arts and the Park Bercy in the east – new spaces created from old ones that embody Paris’s ability to reinvent itself endlessly.

Some old-fashioned elements of the city astonish me by their persistence. Cobblestoned streets. Wallace fountains. Open-air markets of all kinds. Les bouquinistes (can anyone really make a living selling copies of Paris Match from the 1950s?). Carrousels for children, and ponies for hire in the Parc Monceau. The remaining Guimard-designed Metro entrances. I keep wondering if next time, they will have gone, too. But amazingly enough, we see them year after year.

Otherwise, when we want a taste of the so-called good old days, we head to the nearest flea market (our favourite is the one at the Porte de Vanves). There we find many of the items that have vanished from the day-to-day world.

Take the paraphernalia of the old-fashioned café. Ashtrays, match holders, water carafes advertising various drinks, jetons for making a telephone call in the cabine at the back. All the flotsam and jetsam of ordinary life that people took for granted only a decade or two ago.

Consider this still life with carafe, ashtray, match holder, French francs, and a telephone jeton.

Flea markets specialize in these obsolete objects, along with recherché cutlery (pickle forks, anyone?), elaborately embroidered household linens, bakelite jewellery from the 1930s, and forgotten board games. The past is never far away at the Porte de Vanves.

Paris has largely avoided turning itself into a nostalgic theme park, and it looks forward, not back. Ten years from now, I wonder what people will be saying about 2010. Remember when Metro trains had drivers instead of being fully automated? Remember those cute little Internet cafes where people used to send “e-mails”? Remember when wine bottles had corks? Who knows?

We’ll keep going to Paris to see what’s new each year and to enjoy the older elements that survive into the present.

If there are things you remember about Paris 10, 20, or more years ago, please add a comment.

* “BoBo” (bourgeois-bohemians) is the popular French term for gentrifiers, a term derived from David Brooks’s book Bobos in Paradise. They are also known as champagne socialists or caviar socialists. This New York Times article from 2000 describes the BoBo phenomenon as it was emerging, and this 2008 article from the Guardian suggests that the BoBos have had their day. I’m not so sure.

Text and one photograph copyright Philippa Campsie, first photograph copyright Norman Ball

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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5 Responses to A mutable feast

  1. Sab says:

    Hi There – I very much enjoyed reading this article which popped into my in-box just now! So many lovely if nostalgic recollections and anecdotes.

    I can’t consider myself quite an old timer yet, but I still can’t believe that it’s nearly 17 years that I’ve been in Paris now. Being 45 I’m only going to consider myself a real ‘adopted Parisian’ when I can say that I’ve spent half my life here, but that time seems to be zooming ever and ever closer. I don’t remember too many smelly toilets though!

  2. Alison says:

    Where do I start? My husband and I first visited in 1977 , the year after we were married (although I’d been a couple of times before as a youngster and he’d visited as a teen when biking through France), and Paris was all of the above, the long ago above. We had to reserve a time for a bath in any hotel (showers were non existent), no hotel room that we could afford had its own bathroom and a bidet might suffice at 3 am but shouldn’t have to, we used travellers’ cheques exclusively (no holes had been punched in walls at that point and euros might have been a distant dream but the travelling public had never ever heard of them) and Paris was still essentially provincial French and not as cosmopolitan as it is now. But the food was always a cut above anywhere else, and even the most lowly bistro could do it better than most; the yells, bells and smells in the streets were like nowhere else (well, maybe Malta but that’s another story) and the atmosphere under the Arc de Triomphe just after sunset was and still is unparalleled. So yes, the Paris of yesteryear was special to those of us who remember it well, but the Paris of today is a buzz for everyone. Visit, enjoy and savour. It’s an easy and friendly city now, even if you don’t speak the language fluently. Most shopkeepers speak English better than 99.9% of Anglophones speak French. I’m always amazed and highly impressed. The shopping is unrivalled and the atmosphere can only be understood after a visit. This latest post transports me back to a wonderful time, a time which was special for me and not beset with all the concerns and responsibilities that we all have now in middle age.

    If you’ve never been, then book quickly and go at once. It’s a magical place, welcoming and friendly and has so much to offer everyone.

  3. Alex says:

    I really loved this post. Nostalgia is great up to a point, but it can stop you from appreciating all that is new and innovative about a place. Paris hasn’t changed as much for me as for others since the first time I went there (since it was within the last 10 years), and I love seeing a mix of familiar and new things every time I go. The Eiffel Tower next to the Quai Branly, for example.

    p.s. The vespasiennes are certainly no loss. They’ve put some modern versions in London and they’re just unpleasant!

  4. Laura says:

    I loved reading your post. I’ve been to Paris 4 or 5 times in the last 25 years and your post brought back many memories. On my last trip (with 10 students, so it wasn’t a vacation, really, but fun none the less) I discovreed an outdoor urinal in the Jardin de Luxembourg. It is right next to the petanque courts and several of the older gentlemen playing were making use of it. My students who were with me couldn’t believe it, and that is one of the first things they told their friends about when we got back to the States!

  5. Pingback: A Taste of Garlic

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