My life in France (Part 2)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

Text by Philippa Campsie

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

My life in France (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs from various sources.

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

The lost neighbourhood

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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



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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

The art of the gasometer

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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Compagnie_parisienne_d'éclairage_et_de_[...]Fernique_Albert_btv1b1200034x (3)

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

Compagnie_parisienne_d'éclairage_et_de_[...]Fernique_Albert_btv1b1200034x (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Villette map

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


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


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

*“The gas lighting controversy,” Journal of Urban History, vol 33, no. 5, July 2007.
** The city had previously been divided among the Compagnie Anglaise, Compagnie Française, Compagnie Parisienne, Compagnie de Belleville, Compagnie Lacarrière, and the Compagnie de l’Ouest, each with its own gasworks, territorial reach, and distribution network.
Posted in Paris civic functions, Paris history | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Trespassing at Port-Royal

Tuesday, June 24, 2014. A hot day in Paris and Norman was feeling under the weather. He’d finally drifted off to sleep and I decided to go for a walk – not far, just to get some air.

The bedroom window of the apartment we had rented from friends faced the east wall of Port-Royal, and its imposing entrance with blue doors (never opened now) at the corner.


I knew about the former convent, now a maternity hospital, and wondered if I could get a glimpse of the central cloister. I went out to reconnoitre.

There was a security guard in a booth overlooking the parking lot on the Boulevard Port-Royal, but on the rue du Faubourg St-Jacques is a back gate. It was about 1 p.m. and the driveway was full of people coming and going. I joined the throng and walked in. First I did a circuit of the central building and its tree-shaded garden inside the wall.


Some of the outbuildings seemed informal and cottage-like.


It struck me as a comforting environment for childbirth, if somewhat shabby in places.

The doors had notices excluding the unauthorized, but I thought, hey, it’s a maternity hospital and friends and family members of new mothers visit maternity hospitals all the time. I spotted some gardeners going through a side door and followed them in. I even held the door for the man with the wheelbarrow.

They were, of course, heading for the garden in the middle of the cloister. While they attended to their duties, I sat down on a stone bench and took in the view. When nobody was looking, I got out my camera and took a few shots. The gardens were beautifully tended, framed by simple, dignified facades. The chapel had a small bell on the roof, visible in this photograph.


I sat there for quite a while, enjoying the sunshine and the peace. People who went by smiled at me, probably assuming me to be a visitor waiting to see a new baby.

Emboldened, I headed inside. The interior was as simple and uncluttered as the exterior. I found the chapel, but the door was locked. However, I did find a large room that might once have been a refectory. An efficient young woman was showing some people around; perhaps they were planning an event there. In the hall outside the room were plans, photographs, and historical information about Port-Royal, and I spotted a familiar face.


Mère Angélique.

And I realized that I was not the first to trespass at Port Royal.

I had read about Mère Angélique (and seen her picture) in a book called The Travails of Conscience by Alexander Sedgwick.* The author himself had given me the book, and inscribed it. In it, he tells the story of the Arnauld family, and their association with the convent of Port Royal.

Mère Angélique was born Jacqueline Arnauld in  1591, one of twenty children of her parents, Antoine and Catherine Arnauld. With that many children, you need a strategy, and the family decided that while the eldest daughter would be married off, the next three would enter convents. As Sedgwick puts it, “The small dowries required by convents – a fraction of the amount needed to arrange a socially advantageous marriage – made the monastic option attractive to ambitious families with superfluous daughters.”

But it was a prominent family and the girls were not to be ordinary nuns: two were to be abbesses. The idea appealed to young Jacqueline Arnauld, who had a bossy streak. After complicated negotiations, in which her influential grandfather gave her age as 17 (she was 10), and time spent in other convents learning the ropes, Jacqueline (renamed Angélique) went to the 13th-century abbey of Port-Royal in a rural area to the southwest of Paris (now part of the department of Yvelines) where the aging abbess had just died.

The convent was “unreformed,” which meant that rules were lax and the nuns led a comfortable life, not unduly restricted by religious observances. Like Angélique, many were there, not because they had a religious vocation, but because they were “superfluous daughters” from well-to-do families. It was not the life of simplicity and devotion one generally associates with convents.


Angélique had a governess, and the affairs of the convent were efficiently managed by her parents and a prioress. Angélique read what she liked, went for long walks, visited her family quite often, and played with other nuns (presumably some were close to her age). She felt restless and bored, until suddenly when she was 17, she experienced a change of heart and began to take religion seriously. She sought advice from a visiting monk, and he suggested that not just she, but the whole convent, needed to reform. Her parents, and some of the nuns, disagreed. Things were just fine as they were; reform meant difficulties and discipline.

And it meant “clôture.” That is, closing the abbey to family and other visitors, and according nuns more privacy and security. Sedgwick notes, “Unreformed convents were vulnerable to unhealthy influences of one sort or another, and almost anyone who wanted to do so was able to gain access to these communities of unprotected women.” In particular, Angélique’s parents were used to entering the precincts whenever they chose; after all, they had run the place for years.


It all came to a head on September 25, 1609. The Arnaulds arrived at the convent, only to be refused admittance by their daughter, who spoke to them through a small opening in the big front door. Her father was furious and her mother and brother pleaded with her, but Angélique stood her ground. The standoff lasted for several hours until finally the Arnaulds drove away, muttering darkly about never speaking to their daughter again (they later relented). The episode marked the beginning of Angélique’s reputation as a reformer, leading nuns in a life of devotion, prayer, and humility, and turning them away from worldly affairs (including love affairs, which had been quite common up to that point).

By 1625, the old convent of Port-Royal was overcrowded. The convent was near a swamp and several nuns had died of malaria in the unhealthy environment. Angélique moved the community to Paris, to a large house with a garden on the rue du Faubourg St-Jacques. But the building needed more dormitories and a chapel. Angélique had to act as fundraiser. She longed to retreat and focus on her own spirituality, but she was forced to do what would now be called “networking” – hobnobbing with the nobility to get donations and new recruits (with their dowries). It was a constant source of tension in her life.

Nevertheless, her gifts as a reformer and her adherence to Jansenism (an austere theology that focused on human sinfulness) influenced many around her. Others felt threatened by her ideas. If you reject worldly influences, what does that mean for your loyalty to the king? The established order? In a time of absolute monarchy, these were not trivial questions.

Shortly after her death in 1661, Louis XIV and his advisers decided to require all clergy and nuns to sign a document called a formulary, rejecting the theology of Jansenism. Port-Royal had become a centre of Jansenism, and a dozen nuns there refused to sign.


On August 26, 1664, the archbishop of Paris arrived with a group of archers – another trespass – to expel the twelve rebellious nuns and place them in captivity in other convents. Nuns who had signed the formulary were allowed to stay. The captive nuns were later released, sent to the old convent of Port-Royal near the swamp, and left in relative peace until that convent was forcibly closed in 1709 and most of its buildings demolished. The convent in Paris survived until the Revolution, when religious establishments of all kinds were closed. It was briefly used as a prison, and became a maternity hospital in 1795.

The last and most lethal trespasser was a German shell that fell on the maternity hospital on April 11, 1918, killing 20 people in the Salle Baudelocque (a part of the hospital named for a prominent 18th-century obstetrician).


I left the building after a last look at the cloister. I had trespassed long enough. Mothers – from Mère Angélique to the women in the maternity ward – need their privacy.

Entrée principale de la maternité de l'hôpital de Port-Royal, boulevard de Port-Royal (XIVème arr.), vers 1915.

Entrée principale de la maternité de l’hôpital de Port-Royal, boulevard de Port-Royal (XIVème arr.), vers 1915.

Text and contemporary photographs by Philippa Campsie; historic engraving from Gallica; historic photograph from Paris en Images.

*Subtitled The Arnauld Family and the Ancien Régime, Harvard University Press, 1998.






Posted in Paris history, World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Voutch and the evolution of a cartoon style

You know how it is: you notice something properly for the first time, and for the next while, you see it everywhere. So it was with us and the cartoons of Voutch (real name: Olivier Chapougnot).

We had wandered along the Boulevard Port-Royal and decided to take the stairs leading down to one of the sunken streets that cross underneath, rue Broca. This led us to the Librairie Les Traversées at the bottom of the rue Mouffetard. We cannot resist a bookshop (alas – we struggle at the end of each visit with bags that are too heavy), so we went in to explore.

First, we noticed the postcards.


No kidding! You entered “in the port” not “at the port.”

Given our struggles with French prepositions, the caption appealed to us. So did the vultures with their laptop.

Scan_20160612 (2)

First you type “Serengeti,”press Enter, then “Satellite View,” Enter, then “Find,” click on “Gnu,” and in the menu, select “Recent deaths.”

Not far from the postcards were collections of the cartoons in books. An hour later, we emerged with – among other finds we couldn’t resist – two Voutch collections, several Voutch postcards to send to family and friends, and an album called Petit Traité de Voutchologie à l’Usage des Fans et Autres Voutchophiles Eventuels [Short Treatise on Voutchology for the Use of Fans and Future Voutchophiles] (Editions Cherche-Midi, 2015).

From then on, it seemed that everywhere we went, we began to notice Voutch cartoons. In magazines. On children’s books (some by him, some by other people).

Scan_20160612 (3)

And everywhere, the postcards, instantly recognizable.

Scan_20160612 (4)

I want to learn humility. I want to be the No. 1 World Champion in humility!

Clearly, a one-man industrial cartoon complex.

Two things struck us about the cartoons.  First, the richly detailed landscapes and interiors in the background. And second, the peculiar habit of depicting people as modified cylinders with enormous noses.

The Petit Traité de Voutchologie provided some background on how Voutch developed this style. The book is in the form of a dialogue between Voutch and someone who may or may not be the author listed on the front; the story emerges in bits and pieces.

Voutch worked in the advertising industry for 15 years. In 1995, he’d had enough and decided to change direction. His first choice: marketing plastic boomerangs. (As the interviewer says in the book: “Non?…Sérieusement?” Voutch answers: “Sérieusement.”) Not surprisingly, this business did not, ahem, take off. So after some soul-searching, Voutch decided to try cartoons.

One problem: he needed a distinctive style. His early efforts at black-and-white New-Yorker-style cartoons were competent, but visually unmemorable.

Scan_20160612 (5)

Mr. Superman is on sick leave. I’m his replacement, Mr. Gonzales.

He tried adding some colour to these images with watercolour wash, but it made little difference. Then one day, a friend was looking at some of his artworks and noted that Voutch had a talent for gouache, which he had been using to paint landscapes.

Scan_20160612 (6)

A light bulb went on. Gouache is a type of water-based paint that creates opaque, rich colours. Voutch was comfortable with the medium, and it added greater depth to the images. At first he used it as colouring to fill in elements outlined in black.

Scan_20160612 (7)

Trust me: this time, it’s the right one.

Eventually, he got rid of the black outlines. Meanwhile, as he was developing his technique with gouache and adding texture and detail to the settings, his depiction of people was becoming more and more stylized: the noses kept getting bigger and the bodies kept getting more and more minimal. And yet each caricature had a distinctive personality.


You go out to buy bread, you disappear without the least explanation for 14 and a half years, and all you can find to say when you return is: the bakery was closed?

Gouache is not a medium for the impatient. It takes time to build up the layers. When Voutch has a sketch of a cartoon in pencil, he does a small colour mock-up of the illustration to block out the placement of the figures and the background. Sometimes, he does more than one before settling on the preferred arrangement. Then he builds up the illustration, one layer at a time. Each layer can take a full day of work.

By 1997, Voutch had amassed enough work to produce an album of his cartoons: the first in a series now totalling nine (the latest was published by Cherche Midi in 2013). He has also produced a handful of children’s books of his own, as well as creating art for books by other writers. He creates cartoons for magazines, including Madame Figaro and Psychologies (which says something for his ability to express the anxieties of modern life), and illustrations for advertisements, including a series for Credit du Nord.

Mind you, he didn’t completely leave the boomerangs behind; one never can, I suppose. He participates in French boomerang competitions (yes, such things exist), markets his own line of boomerangs, and produces publicity for these competitions. (In the boomerang world, he goes by the name of Olivier Vouktchevitch.) A labour of love.

Another labour of love was a set of playing cards, created in his distinctive style. He was not commissioned to do this work; he simply liked the idea of creating cards. The king, queen, and jack offered the opportunity to have two subtly different versions in the two directions, and the two versions tell a little story, as you can see below (consider it a game of spot the difference).

Scan_20160612 (12)

Scan_20160612 (13)

There is a link here to the images of Épinal, which show different details according to which way up you hold them. Indeed, according to French Wikipedia, Voutch lived in Épinal when he was young.

Even the number cards have distinctive features.

Scan_20160612 (14)

In search of this deck of cards, we went to the Galerie Dominique, rue Guersant, in the 17th. We made an appointment with the owner, Dominque Fertil, who welcomed us and showed us a range of Voutch originals, including large-scale versions of the playing cards.


Out of our price range, alas, but delightful. We were particularly taken with the original of this cartoon of a typical French brocante:

Scan_20160612 (15)

It’s no doubt my destiny: minimalist with a tendency towards hypercontrariety.

We would recommend Voutch for anyone learning French – although occasionally, a word in a caption might not be acceptable in polite society. And if you don’t read French, a collection, This is as Bad as it Gets, is available in English.  (Click on “Look inside” to see several of the cartoons with English captions.)

You can also see his latest venture: a cartoon blog sponsored by Le Monde, which has allowed him to produce series that involve dialogues instead of single images with one-liners. Interestingly, all the cartoons in this series (so far) have non-human protagonists. There is even a Voutch Club, which you can join through his own website.

Or you can just Google his name: hundreds of his cartoons are on line in various forms.

By the way, we don’t know the meaning or origin of his nom de plume. There is probably a story there.

And the postcards we bought? We kept them. We never did send them to our nearest and dearest as we had intended. One day, perhaps.

Text by Philippa Campsie, illustrations by Voutch.






Posted in Paris art, Paris popular culture, Paris postcards | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Rescued from oblivion

On the morning of April 12, 2016, three of us set out from this courtyard on an astounding walk through the Marais. But the story starts much earlier.


In 1980, a sharp-eyed passerby spotted some photographs in a Paris dumpster and scooped them up. He or she took them to a knowledgeable collector. One can imagine the collector’s jaw dropping at the sight. Dozens and dozens of black-and-white images of Paris, taken in the early 1940s – that is, during the German occupation of the city.

In 2005, the collector showed them to Patrice Roy, architect and graphic artist, who selected about a hundred, 58 of which had been taken in the third and fourth arrondissements, the Marais. Roy lived in the Marais, and recognized many of the buildings. He researched the images, and discovered that the photos had been commissioned by the city administration to document îlots insalubres – “slum blocks” slated for clearance and redevelopment.

The images were the work of two commercial photographers – A. Cayeux and F. Nobécourt. Little is known about them, but they were following in the tradition of earlier photographers such as Eugene Atget and Charles Marville, who captured parts of the city that were destined to vanish.

Things turned out differently in this case.

At the time they were photographed, the Marais buildings were dilapidated. Former mansions of the nobility had become cheap lodgings and workshops for artisans and immigrants. The administration condemned the buildings and attempted to evict the tenants. Many did leave, but housing was scarce, and the city did not have the resources to tear down existing buildings and build new ones. So life went on in these old buildings.

As Patrice Roy looked at the haunting photos from the 1940s, he spoke of  “testimony to a stoic melancholy” and buildings that looked “unreal, deserted, as if swept of inhabitants by the war.”* They had indeed been very dark times.

Scan from book 28 rue Charlot

Attitudes changed after the war. In the early 1960s, the Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, mused on how “Paris noir était une ville triste” (the blackened Paris was a sad city). But the solution was not to demolish sorry-looking remnants of the past; rather, they could be saved as a fertile resource for city dwellers of the present. In his vision, “l’avenir ne s’oppose pas au passé, il le ressuscite” (the future does not oppose the past, it resuscitates it). This spirit and vision led to the Malraux law of 1962 that rescued so many old buildings from oblivion.

In 2015, Patrice Roy published the 58 photographs of the Marais from the 1940s with detailed descriptions of each image, as well as background information about the city’s plans for the area and the eventual fate of the buildings. The descriptions are thoughtful and reflective, making the reader slow down and gaze into the photographs. The result is Paris Marais 43: Arrondissements 4 & 3 photographiés durant l’Occupation par Cayeux et Nobécourt (Creaphis Editions).

We met Patrice in April of this year; he inscribed our copy of the book. When we told him we planned to search out some of the buildings in the photographs, he offered to give us a tour. We were delighted and honoured.

Patrice created a map for our walk. We more or less followed the route shown, with some detours. But it gives you a sense of the quartier we explored together, and some of the buildings we saw.


Our first destination was the Marché des Enfants Rouges. The market dates to the 1600s and is the oldest covered market in Paris. The name, which means Market of the Red Children, refers to the children from a nearby orphanage who wore red uniforms.


As we walked, we were astounded by Patrice’s intimate knowledge of the area. He had helped restore many of the buildings we saw and had anecdotes galore about such things as the sub-basement where crayfish were raised in tanks for a restaurant, or about disagreements within a dysfunctional committee of co-propriétaires that had led to blows. He led us through narrow lanes (ruelles) straight out of the Middle Ages and into hidden (but public) gardens along the way.

A few minutes into our tour, Patrice led us along a narrow laneway (ruelle) where numerous chasses roues stood as mute evidence of the days when delivery carts bumped along its length. The trickle of water down the sunken centre had been an open drain; we didn’t even try to imagine how it must once have smelled.

3 Ruelle Sourdis

Today, most visitors, and perhaps Parisians, see the Marais as a destination of boutiques, galleries, restaurants and watering holes., However, as Patrice pointed to signs and opened doors, we could see many other types of businesses. But nothing we glimpsed prepared us for the wonders behind this sign.

4a Janvier

Inside, people were packing and filling orders, but all was quiet. As our eyes adjusted to the subdued light, shiny objects demanded our attention.

Janvier 1

Alas, we left without souvenirs: the shop full of stamped metal decorations carried out wholesale transactions in bulk only.

4 Janvier 17 rue Pastourelle

Another courtyard allowed Patrice to help us read more into what we saw. Why was one stone so much larger that the other cobblestones? It was a special workplace, he explained. Here a heavy section of a tree trunk would serve as the base for splitting firewood.


It reminded Norman of the section of tree trunk he uses to split wood for our fireplace in Toronto.


We have often seen pulleys suspended a storey or two above ground level to hoist goods up to a window or door. But we had never noticed anything like the curved metal wall hook to which Patrice drew our attention.

8 #28 rue Charlot

Getting wine barrels into the cellar safely would be a tricky job. If one raised the red door, one end of a rope could hold a barrel fast; the other end would go through the hook. The wine could be lowered safely by easing up on the rope, as one would do more elaborately with a capstan.

In the same courtyard it looked as if a basement window was missing. Not so. The unobstructed opening is an important part of a centuries-old ventilation system. Such openings allowed a free flow of air into  and through the cellars.

Basement opening

When closed up, the air in the cellar often becomes musty and unpleasant. (On another walk, our friend Mireille had pointed out blocked-up ventilation spaces at ground level and speculated on the problems they caused.)

As Patrice guided us through areas he knew well, other buildings, other doors revealed continuing wonders. Here was a restoration in progress.

Restoration work

What is the story behind this mural? Will it survive the next restoration?

14 rue du Parc Royal

Despite the wealth that now characterizes much of the Marais, not all residents are wealthy. One of Norman’s favourite buildings included social housing. We passed street-level office windows as we entered a quiet cobblestoned courtyard with modern metal benches.


It was a peaceful scene with an unusual modern take on traditional privacy/security shutters at one end.

25 #25 rue Michel le Comte

Patrice filled us in on the details. The original building dated from the 17th century, with additions in all the centuries since. In the latest renovation (2015), a restored 17th-century passageway reopened the block. In the end, 25 Rue Michel le Comte had more housing than before and the apartments were more comfortable than earlier ones. Nevertheless, mixed use had been preserved with space occupied by a variety of tenants, including an architect and an independent film producer.

However, food for the mind must also be supplemented by food for the body. And here, again, Patrice guided us very well.

28 Restaurant le Pas Sage

Lunch at Le Pas Sage was delightful (boudin noir burgers, highly recommended). We were ready to give our feet a rest while continuing the conversation.

Patrice left us with many memories, more than we can relate here, but we particularly enjoyed his demonstration of how one would use this step at 23 rue Michel le Comte to mount one’s horse. It is the only remaining mounting block in Paris.


We hope that the book will soon be translated, so English readers can explore the Marais as we did. Here is the photo we took of the 1940s photograph shown above. Cleaned and restored, the present building has resuscitated the past.

6 #28 rue Charlot

Text and photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie.

* In a fascinating coda to his book, Patrice has collected and enlarged the faint traces of people in the photographs – a woman looking down from a window, men working in the street, a nun in a garden, children playing. The long exposures made some of them appear as transparent ghosts, but the buildings were clearly tenanted and used. Only the photographs are still.
Posted in Paris architecture, Paris history, Paris markets, Paris quartiers, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments