The painter Gustave Caillebotte and his brother, photographer Martial Caillebotte, loved balconies. They frequently painted and photographed people standing on ornate balconies overlooking wide boulevards, gazing down at the passing scene below.* And sometimes they set up an easel or a camera on a balcony and captured what they saw from that viewpoint. One of my favourite pictures is the one that Gustave painted of the view from his balcony on the boulevard Haussmann in 1880 – a tiny view into the everyday world 130 years ago.
On our most recent visit to Paris, we rented an apartment with a balcony, and like the Caillebottes, we spent a lot of time on it, watching people come and go. However, our apartment did not overlook a wide boulevard, but a narrow, one-way street, and the first thing we saw when we looked out was not a tree and a bench, but…a Velib’ stand. Here it is, with some of Paris’s finest pedalling by.
We realized after a while that this stand served much the same function as the bench in Caillebotte’s picture. People sat on the bicycles or the docking stations just like the man pictured on the bench, but in this day and age, they were usually smoking a cigarette or making a phone call.
With the introduction of anti-smoking laws in France, outdoor smoking is common and the spot was a popular one for smoke breaks for the kitchen staff and wait staff of a local restaurant. The restaurant entrance was on the next street over (a spacious boulevard), but our balcony overlooked the staff entrance. The women’s footwear is a clue to the type of restaurant.
Another 21st century feature of the view was the green cross advertising a pharmacie – this establishment also faced onto the boulevard one block over, and the sign simply directed customers to the location of the entrance. These green crosses fascinate me. Somewhere, there is a factory churning them out for the French market, and the workers must spend their lives coming up with new patterns of green lights on a black background. It seems that no two signs have exactly the same patterns.
Because the street was one way with parking on both sides, and because it served as the back entrance to the buildings opposite, we would sometimes hear car horns blaring in futile frustration as the street was blocked by someone loading or unloading. The noise would reach a particular crescendo when the blockage was caused by the green recycling truck that picked up the wine bottles from the restaurant. The truck had hoists to raise up the bins full of bottles and tip them out into the pile inside. Deafening. And there were always a lot of bins to empty.
Every day, indeed every hour, there was something new to see – somebody doing a little housekeeping…
…or walking a dog.
But every evening, we were treated to free entertainment in the form of the valet parking guy (voiturier). Farther down the street was a Chinese restaurant that was clearly popular with the well-to-do. Between 8 and 9 p.m., the BMWs, the Jags, the SUVs, and the Bentleys would pull up and disgorge their impeccably dressed occupants. Then the parking guy would take over.
His job was to find a spot somewhere, anywhere, in the vicinity, park the car, and sprint back to his position to get the next car. He was very fit and very good at parking. We once watched him back up and round a corner at the next intersection when a spot became available on a cross street. His office was a battered Peugeot, where he kept the keys to all the cars. He had an assistant who stood around looking helpless and who was clearly not allowed to get behind the wheel of a car. I guess his job was to keep an eye on the car where the keys were kept.
If you look closely in the picture below, you will see a sort of blur in front of the Velib’ stand. That’s our guy, running flat out, to retrieve or move a car. My camera shutter speed couldn’t keep up with him.
Never a dull moment. What, I wonder, would Caillebotte have chosen to paint if he had lived on this street today?
* We saw the work of the brothers Caillebotte at the Musée Jacquemart-André. This special exhibition continues until July 11, 2011.
Text by Philippa Campsie; photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball