For many, Paris is the City of Light, grand museums, or extravagant shopping forays. For us, it is the City of Surprises, and now, a city of friends. Several years ago, when we started research on the history of communications technology for the blind, we had no inkling what might lie ahead. We never imagined that our research would lead to new friendships, culminating in an invitation to witness one of them being awarded the French Order of Merit. Let alone that the ceremony would take place in a former corset factory.
The first step on the road to this delightful outcome took place at a Book Arts Fair in Toronto some years ago, where Norman met Martin Howard, a noted collector of antique typewriters. That led to an abiding friendship and to Norman’s growing fascination with Martin’s splendid collection, most of all the Hall Braille-Writer, invented in Illinois in 1892.
Norman was captivated by the elegant design, and also by the way in which this inexpensive device changed the lives of blind people, making it possible for them to communicate quickly in Braille.
Several years ago, as the two of us were leaving for a trip to Paris, Martin suggested we contact a Paris typewriter collector with whom he had corresponded. We did so, and he urged us to visit the museum at the Association Valentin Haüy to see its outstanding and varied collection of Braille writers and other communications devices for the blind. There we met Noëlle Roy, the conservatrice. She patiently answered our many questions and encouraged us to touch and try the machines (this is not a museum where touching the exhibits is forbidden!).
Norman ended up writing a paper about the invention of the Hall Braille-Writer and presented it at an unusual conference in England called “Blind Creations.” Noëlle was there, along with many other French delegates. Following a group lunch, Norman found himself at the table opposite Zina Weygand, the eminent French historian of the blind and a keynote speaker at the conference.
Norman said shyly, “Je ne suis pas très confortable quand je parle français.” Zina replied, “I am not very comfortable when I speak English.” And yet somehow they chatted for 15 minutes and Norman asked how to get a copy of a paper she had written. Zina said, “Bruno will know. Follow me.” She introduced him to Bruno Liessen from Brussels, who assured Norman he would send him the paper.
Bruno also mentioned a knowledgeable collector of artifacts relating to the blind who lived near Paris. He offered to send her Norman’s contact information. The collector turned out to be Mireille Duhen, who was indeed both knowledgeable and helpful, and a volunteer at the Association Valentin Haüy. We have since exchanged countless emails with Mireille, and shared information (you will have seen some of her contributions to this blog) as well as spending time together in Paris and at the Musée Braille in nearby Coupvray, where we met Stéphan Mary, who brought Braille machines out of storage to show us.
Meanwhile, we also got to know Noëlle’s husband, Patrice Roy, who took us on an unforgettable walk in the Marais. And it was on a visit to Noëlle’s and Patrice’s apartment that we got stuck in a tiny elevator. Getting stuck in someone’s elevator turns out to be a rather bonding experience.
And so through a complex web of friendships borne out of research, our love of Paris, and serendipitous events, we found ourselves travelling to Paris to attend the ceremony on June 8, 2018, at which Noëlle, now retired from the museum, would receive the French Order of Merit. Is it any wonder that Norman likes to say, “Planning is what you resort to when chance breaks down”?
We had no idea what to expect at a ceremony in which the Order of Merit is awarded. We had vague visions of formally dressed Academicians, 19th-century rooms with cherubs on the ceiling, mirrors on the walls, and acres of gilt chairs, and speeches in which people used a lot of subjunctives and conditional verbs. Norman wore a jacket and tie on a sultry day to rise to the occasion.
But this is France. Never assume. The venue turned out to be a renovated former corset factory in the 10th arrondissement near the Canal St-Martin, now used for digital enterprises, and we sat on modern chairs in a light-filled space that rose up three floors to an iron and glass ceiling. The picture below was taken before the rest of the audience arrived.
Some of the men wore jackets and ties, but most of the audience was dressed casually. Mireille was there, along with some people we had met at the conference in England, and Zina Weygand presented the award.
Unlike Canadian professional conferences, with which we are all too familiar, there were no extended preliminary warm-ups to the main event. We have come to dread conference talks in which someone introduces at tedious length the person who then introduces the keynote speaker. On this occasion, there were only two speeches, both of them interesting and to the point.
Zina Weygand gave the opening speech, in which she explained why Noëlle Roy, former conservatrice of the museum and library at the Association Valentin Haüy, had been granted this honour.
Zina was frank. She was funny. She addressed Noëlle as “tu” and gave us a short but pithy biography of her colleague (we hadn’t known Noëlle had grown up in Africa, when her father’s work as an engineer took the family to Algeria and the Ivory Coast, nor about her early career in psychology, a field chosen by her father). Zina made connections at each step with Noëlle’s work for the Association Valentin Haüy.
Zina explained that Noëlle had embarked on a new career after the birth of her son and daughter, studying art history and attending the prestigious school of museology at the École du Louvre. And she noted candidly that for Noëlle, working in the museum of a school for the blind, where visual aesthetics were not at the centre of the collection, was at first disconcerting, given her training and interest in art history.
Zina was also forthright about the short-sighted decision of the Association Valentin Haüy not to replace Noëlle when she retired, which means that this unique museum is no longer regularly open to the public. The French were in the forefront of educating the blind in the 18th century, and until 2017, part of Noëlle’s job was to introduce visitors, researchers, and students to this history by introducing them to the Association’s unparalleled collections and explaining their value. Alas, nobody does this important work now, and we are not alone in thinking that Paris is the poorer for the loss.
Zina ended her talk with the words, « Au nom du Président de la République et en vertu des pouvoirs qui nous sont conférés, nous vous faisons Chevalier de l’ordre national du Mérite » (in the name of the president of the Republic and by the powers conferred on us, we name you Chevalier of the National Order of Merit) and pinned the medal and its blue ribbon on Noelle’s lapel.
Noëlle’s gracious response was to thank, individually and in detail, those in attendance (to our amazement, we were included), and also to talk about the distinctive setting for the ceremony. Apparently, the recipient of an Order of Merit can choose where and how to receive the award, and is responsible for the arrangements. Noëlle had made an interesting and unusual choice in the former factory.
It was once a corset factory, that of Auguste Claverie. Noëlle alluded humorously to the importance of corsetry in enhancing the female figure, but went on to explain that 19th-century advances in body-shaping technology turned out to be crucial when it came to bandaging and supporting bodies damaged in the First World War. The connection to disability was appropriate, since the First World War was also the occasion for advances in the treatment of the blind, but that was not the reason for Noëlle’s choice.
Today, the former factory is home to Cap Digital, an information technology research hub that, among other things, is pioneering technologies that help the blind. One, for example, is an app called Panda Guide that uses video and image analysis to describe a space in words to a blind person so that he or she can navigate the space. What a perfect venue for such an event.
Noëlle also mentioned that although the Claverie corset brand is no more, the Claverie corset shop is still a going concern at 234, rue du Faubourg St-Martin. A few days later, we went to take a look. It was early afternoon and we had not known that the shop closes for lunch from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., but we took an enjoyable walk along the Canal (past a building we have written about before) while we waited for it to reopen. It was worth the wait. Other than the lingerie available for sale, the interior is much the same as it was 100 years ago. (Alas, there was scaffolding all over the façade, but the front is also largely unchanged.) One would not have thought that such an interior could survive into the 21st century.
As you read this, we are on our way home to Canada, after an extraordinary vacation in which we spent time with friends, learned more about communications with and among the blind, and gained a little more insight into this city that we will never fully understand, but will always appreciate for the surprises and gifts we receive and the friends we make as we explore it year after year.
Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball. Photograph of Noëlle Roy by Patrice Roy.
After eight years of blogging and 200 posts, we have decided to take a short sabbatical. Over the next few months, we need to focus on some other writing projects, as well as a family wedding. We will return in 2019 with more stories of our favourite city.