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.

Posted in Paris architecture, Paris history, Paris hospitals, Paris shops, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

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.

Posted in Toronto | Tagged , , , , , | 23 Comments

Far from the Madding Crowd

Recently, the Financial Times posed the question: “Is now the right time to escape to the country?” The article contrasted “packed, polluted and pandemic-ridden cities” with the “space, greenery and lower prices” of the countryside. Now that people can leave the city while (ostensibly) maintaining the career and lifestyle they prefer – thanks to the Internet, videoconferencing, and home delivery of everything from food to furnishings – the countryside beckons.

It’s an attractive proposition, but before you call your agent, talk to someone who has actually done it. We were lucky enough in 2019 to visit friends who had restored a rundown house in a rural part of Burgundy, close to Avallon and Vézelay, and we were staggered at the amount of work that had gone into making the house into a comfortable retreat. It is not a prospect for the faint-hearted. The results are, however, delightful and would induce rural-home envy in the most committed of city dwellers.

Patrice and Noëlle bought “La Cure” in 2015. It has that name because the house was once the home of the curé (priest) of the local church. For the previous 30 years, it had been uninhabited; the garden had become a jungle and some parts of the property were used as a squat. But it had good bones; Patrice is an architect who specializes in restoration, and he saw the potential.

He sent us this image from an 1826 plan showing the house and its surroundings.

The red shape with the cross at the top left is the church. The house itself is the red shape to the right of the walled garden, which is indicated by diagonal lines. A lane links the house to the main road. The third, L-shaped structure shown in red consists of a large barn and a series of outbuildings enclosing a courtyard. The blue curved shape is, yes, a moat. In the 12th century, the site was occupied by a fortified manor house dominating a village (in every sense, since the occupant controlled the lives of the villagers).

By the 15th century, the village had been abandoned after the Hundred Years War against the English, and the original manor house had fallen into ruins, but a newer fortified house was built on the site in about 1700, during the reign of Louis XIV. During the Revolution, the place was bought by a priest who had sworn allegiance to the Republic (not all priests did). In 1820, he transferred ownership of the property to the local commune. During two centuries this was the centre of religious life for the neighbourhood and generations of children learned their catechism here.

But by 1985, a shortage of priests led to the closing of the church and the abandonment of La Cure, and the property was sold in 2015. Shortly after Patrice and Noëlle bought it, they sent us some pictures of the garden façade and the kitchen.

They had their work cut out for them – and for a small army of artisans and builders. Patrice drew up a detailed plan. Here is a view the façade of the house that faces the lane. There were no remaining windows on the ground floor on this side, and the plan called for four new ones, as well as two on the top floor.

Over the next year and a half, 39 “compagnons” (we explained this term in a previous blog) representing 21 different trades, drawn from the surrounding area and from Paris, worked on the house. Masons restored fallen walls and created openings for the windows. Carpenters restored wooden floors and panelling, and built furniture. Electricians discreetly installed hundreds of outlets and new wiring. And a team of builders shored up the wooden staircase and created a new dormer and a new skylight in the roof.

That description makes the project sound relatively straightforward. But even something as seemingly simple as new windows are a project in and of themselves, with the fabrication of the windows in a way that fits the historic context, and the creation of custom hardware for opening and closing them. To say nothing of the complex maze of permissions required to alter any historic building in France.

Having followed some of this activity through e-mails, we were very eager to see the place.

In May 2019, Noëlle met us at the station in Avallon and drove us to La Cure. This is the side on the lane – the main entrance to the house is through the garden on the other side. There is also a side entrance into the courtyard, just visible on the right.

We were given a splendid room with a stately fireplace that was apparently the one in which visiting bishops used to stay. There was even a small room to one side designated for the bishop’s attendant. We had views out to the lane on one side and the garden on the other.

We enjoyed many meals in the light-filled dining room – the kitchen is tucked away around the corner. This is the same room shown above, with the fireplace now restored to all its glory.

Patrice gave us a tour of the property. Work was still in progress on one of the garden walls. It was eventually completed by four stone workers over seven months.

The outbuildings off the courtyard (Patrice said it had taken months to clean out the accumulated rubbish) retained a fascinating array of ecclesiastical leftovers, from piles of old catechisms and Sunday School colouring books to the remains of a plaster set of bas-reliefs for the Way of the Cross.

(I noticed the latter were marked “Raffl et Cie,” so I looked up the name later. It was a Parisian maker of religious statues from the mid 19th to the early 20th century.)

The interior of the barn was one of the oldest parts of the property. We gazed up into the rafters, straight into the Middle Ages.

Mind you, Patrice has since sent us photos of even older objects found on the property – a Roman coin and two Neolithic flints, in addition to 17th– century coins.

And fossils. All kinds of fossils.

In tidying up the stone terrace recently, Patrice and Noëlle found a boundary stone marked with four incomprehensible signs. The land continues to yield up small mysteries and clues to its former life.

This year, Patrice and Noëlle are focusing on the garden, clipping hedges, pruning the fruit trees, planting flowers, creating a potager. It’s a lot of hard work, as any rural property owner knows. Remember Rudyard Kipling’s words: “…such gardens are not made / By singing: – “Oh, how beautiful!” and sitting in the shade.”

The house remains cool in hot weather (thick stone walls will do that), but it is also cold in winter. It is quiet – if you don’t count the birds, the insects, and the heifers in the adjoining field (who sometimes stray, as shown here), as well as all kinds of small creatures going about their own business in the hedges and long grass.

We look forward to returning one day. For now, revisiting La Cure in our memories will have to do.

Text by Philippa Campsie with background material supplied by Patrice Roy; photographs by Patrice Roy, Noëlle Roy, Norman Ball, and Philippa Campsie.


Posted in Burgundy | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Places of healing

As businesses and institutions in France begin to open up, cautiously, I find myself trying to imagine life in the city right now. Those thoughts start with the quartier we know best – the Observatoire. It’s a neighbourhood that I have written about before.

One of its main features is the prevalence of hospitals.

The Val de Grâce military hospital consists of a glorious array of 17th-century buildings crowned by a dome, and a modern hospital, the two separated by a vast empty garden.

The Port Royal maternity hospital has a lovely hidden courtyard.

The Ste-Anne psychiatric hospital is a little village in itself with calming green promenades linking the buildings.

The sprawling, bustling campus of the Cochin Hospital features a complex system of interior streets.

We have also been watching the transformation of the nearby Hôpital St-Vincent-de-Paul on the boulevard to the west of us. It closed some years ago. The site is now occupied by “Les Grands Voisins,” and has become a temporarily repurposed space for start-ups, shelters, workshops, craft sales (like the one shown below), performance spaces, cafes, and community services.

The site was due to be redeveloped into housing and green space starting this year. But last I heard, the volunteers there were distributing food parcels and making masks, so perhaps that timetable has moved back.

Our research at the Association Valentin-Haüy takes us past a series of medical establishments along the boulevard du Montparnasse, including the Necker children’s hospital (Enfants Malades), which has recently undergone a major renovation.

When we take the 95 bus in the other direction, we glimpse the huge La Pitié–Salpetrière hospital near the Gare d’Austerlitz with its domed chapel. A friend who has lived in Paris tells me that she used to enjoy walking in the spacious grounds.

La Pitié–Salpetrière has a murky history as a prison for prostitutes and an asylum for mentally ill women (many of whom were kept chained up), not to mention as a gunpowder factory (which uses saltpeter, hence the name). In the 19th century, Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot developed the study of neurology here (his theories were later superseded, but he established the field of study), and inspired further study by the likes of Sigmund Freud, who attended his lectures. It is now a general and teaching hospital.

So many hospitals.

And I have been thinking of the front-line workers and the patients at all these places. As the threat from coronavirus recedes somewhat, Paris, like Toronto and all major cities, is facing a backlog of other medical cases and emergencies – an exhausting prospect for already exhausted staff.

Thinking about hospitals sent me, as usual, to our postcard collection, looking for images. Paris hospitals often occupy historic buildings and many include courtyards and gardens (some of which were once the cloisters of religious establishments). I found quite a few images. Here’s the entrance to the Hôpital St-Louis, close to the Canal St-Martin, in an image dating from the early 20th century.

This entry pavilion is little changed today.

Another postcard provides an overview of its extent in the 17th century.

The central courtyard is still there, and so is the chapel, as we can see in this satellite view from Google.

St-Louis specializes in the treatment of cancer and in dermatology. The historic buildings are still in use for administration, while clinical services are provided in a modern facility, visible in the top right of the satellite view.

Another postcard shows the Hôpital Laënnec, now closed, which once had the depressing name of the “hospital for incurables.” It was named for the inventor of the stethoscope, who himself had worked at the Hôpital Necker. It is near the Bon Marché, and the site has been largely redeveloped, although the historic elements, including the spire and the lantern, remain.

The site now contains private apartments, student residences, offices, and a seniors’ residence.

The Hôpital Lariboisière was established after a cholera epidemic in the 1830s, and was intended to pioneer practices of hygiene and disinfection. It is now a teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Paris. It was originally called simply the Hôpital du Nord (it is close to the Gare du Nord), but when the Countess Elise de Lariboisière died in 1851 without an heir, she left her fortune to the hospital, which took her name in gratitude. The buildings are now under renovation.

The Hôtel-Dieu on the Ile de la Cité is Paris’s oldest hospital, founded in the 7th century. “Hôtel-Dieu” denotes a hospital intended for the treatment of the poor, and there are hospitals with that name in many French and Canadian cities.

The Hôtel-Dieu retains its emergency centre, as well as departments for ophthalmology and the treatment of diabetes. I have my own memories of it.

When I was a student in Paris, I developed an infection near my ear, and I went to the emergency department. Several residents examined me, and I was sent to the ear-nose-and-throat department. The people there determined that my ear was not, in fact, infected, and sent me to the surgical department to have the painful area dressed. I sat glumly in the waiting room, and the lady next to me struck up a conversation, asking me about myself.

When a doctor called me in, he said I would have to pay before he could treat me. As I had very little money, and was in some pain and stress, I burst into tears. Forthwith, the lady in the waiting room flew to my side and berated the doctor. “This young woman has come to France to learn our language and study our civilization and you are persecuting her!” The doctor gulped and took a step back. He hastily prescribed antibiotics, dressed the sore spot, and sent me packing. I was too intimidated to go back, but the antibiotics did the trick in time. And that wonderful lady helped me form a lifelong fondness for the French.

The next time I needed to see a doctor when I was a student, I avoided the Hotel-Dieu and went to the Hertford British Hospital, a huge neo-Gothic pile in the suburbs, founded by Richard Wallace, the same man who gave Paris its Wallace fountains. I don’t remember much about my experience there, so I assume it was uneventful.

The final image in our postcard collection is the American Hospital in Neuilly, in an image dating from the 1950s.

I have never been there, but someone I took a great interest in died in that hospital. Back in 2010, I became very taken with the work of Stanley Loomis (1922–72), an American writer of four books of French history and biography. He died there a few days short of his 50th birthday (and a few days before Christmas), after being hit by a taxi in the Place de la Concorde.

I ended up writing a Wikipedia article on Loomis (as well as a longer unpublished autobiography), with the help of some of his family members and friends and thereby made several friends myself with whom I am still in touch.

None of this, of course, tells you what is going on now in these places of healing. I guess I could say that I’ve looked at hospitals from both sides now, and it’s their illusions I recall. I really don’t know French health care at all.

Text by Philippa Campsie, image of Hertford Hospital from the Wellcome Collection, panorama of the Necker Hospital from the hospital’s Linkedin site, satellite and street views from Google maps, all other images by Philippa Campsie or from our postcard collection.

P.S. Last week was National Nursing Week, at least here in Canada. An Instagram post from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto quotes Charles Kirk Clarke, a pioneering Canadian psychiatrist, as saying: “When one looks for the foundation on which the reputation of any great hospital is built, it will soon be learned that the efficiency of the nursing department is a greater factor than the competency of the medical staff.” Nurses, of course, have known that all along.

Posted in Paris history, Paris hospitals | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Empty streets

Birdsong. That’s what I hear these days when I wake up. Not the sounds of neighbours going to work or getting the kids ready for school. But the sound of robins and sparrows and starlings.

I hope our friends in Paris are also able to hear the birds, too. Certainly the sounds of traffic have dwindled. My stepson Alex sent us a video taken from a drone flying over an apparently empty city. Here is a still:

Of course, the residents are still there, they’re just not visible. And that made me think of a famous photograph, one taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838 or 1839 from the window of his studio, looking over the Boulevard du Temple.

Although the street seems empty, it would have been filled with people, horses, and vehicles, but given the exposure time of 20 to 30 minutes, all movement was erased, leaving behind only  a blur of a man on the pavement, with his foot raised and another blur in front of him that is presumably a shoe shiner. The two were there long enough to be captured by Daguerre. A curious immortality for a boulevardier and a practitioner of one of Paris’s petits métiers.

The same phenomenon appears to be at work in the view of the now-vanished Tuileries Palace by Edouard-Denis Baldus, taken in about 1860. Two men stand in conversation in the middle of the foreground and two small urchins crouch near the entrance to the fenced-off garden on the left. Nobody else is visible. Surely others passed this central location while the photograph was being taken.

Or not. Even when exposure times were shortened to allow photographs of moving traffic and pedestrians, photographers such as Charles Marville and Eugène Atget preferred to show images of a deserted Paris. They got up early in the morning specifically to take pictures of empty streets and vacant alleys. They were documenting buildings, not street life.

This is Charles Marville’s photo of the rue de Rivoli. When is that street ever empty? Yet here it looks as if the city has been abandoned.

Indeed, architectural photography, which avoided the untidiness that people represented, was one of the earliest forms of photography. As Sabrina Lynn Hughes wrote in an M.A. thesis called “Empty Streets in the Capital of Modernity: Formation of Lieux de Mémoire in Parisian Street Photography From Daguerre to Atget”:

Photography’s auspicious arrival coincided with the beginnings of official architectural preservation concerns in France. In 1837, the Comte de Montalivet and François Guizot, the present and former Ministers of the Interior, created the Commission des Monuments Historiques to survey the state of national monuments… Photographers would aid in the inventory process, creating an objective image of a structure’s condition at the moment of exposure; architects viewing the resulting images would identify the buildings most in need of repair and protection (pp. 24–25).

Edouard-Denis Baldus* was one of the photographers hired by the Commission, and for this work, he travelled through Burgundy and Provence. Meanwhile, back in Paris, the architectural scenery was already changing, as Ms Hughes recounts:

[When Baldus returned from his mission,] demolitions in Paris were underway. While Georges-Eugène Haussmann has been seen as the progenitor of modernization in Paris, Jean-Jacques Berger, Prefect of the Seine from 1848 until 1852, actually began some of the building projects more comprehensively executed by his infamous successor. Berger’s priority was dégagement, the liberation of  architectural monuments from parasitic structures and slums that had formed around them over decades, even centuries. Therefore, monuments were being cleared of conjoined buildings to make a more visually pleasing view of the city’s architectural patrimony (pp. 26–27).

One example was the Tour St-Jacques, which now sits in a garden-like setting. The tower was the only remaining part of a 16th-century church that was mostly demolished during the Revolution. Another of Baldus’s photographs shows it in the process of dégagement.

As usual, nobody in sight.

This trend of photographing empty streets and buildings continued well into the 20th century. The found photographs captured in Patrice Roy’s fascinating book Paris Marais 43, were taken in 1943 by A. Cayeux and F. Nobécourt, who clearly made every effort to avoid including messy humans. Even the café tables are deserted in this photo from the rue St-Antoine.

But Roy is not fooled. In a section at the back of the book labelled “Fantômes,” he documents 20 instances in which people are visible in the photographs, sometimes in shop window reflections, sometimes in blurry motion that makes them almost transparent, and sometimes in unexpected corners.

Here is one example, also from the rue St-Antoine. If you look closely, you will see several phantoms on the sidewalk, and one woman very clearly at an upper window.

No, there is nothing new about images of an apparently depopulated Paris. But the population is there, if you know where to look. And the larks are still bravely singing. Even now.


I will leave you with a sonnet about birdsong. A few days after everything shut down in Toronto, as Norman and I were taking an early morning walk, we heard a cardinal. I gather there are no cardinals in France (other than the ecclesiastical version), but the crested red birds are a welcome sight here in spring. The following day, I wrote this:

The days lie flat as graves amid the grass.
The news is grim: life cancelled, closed, postponed.
We look for ways to make the long days pass,
We’ve reached our friends, we’ve e-mailed, texted, phoned.
The travellers return, the kids stay in,
The lights are off in churches and in shops,
The streets and skies have lost their normal din,
All movement ceases, the machine just stops.
But no, the spring approaches, sap runs free
Our neighbour’s snowdrops one more time appear.
A cardinal is singing in a tree,
Unheeding of our silence and our fear.
The quiet is not quiet – we have heard
The Resurrection from a single bird.

We wish you, our readers, all the best during this difficult time, and we invite comments in which you tell us a bit about how you are, wherever you are, and how you are living through this peculiar time. Are the streets empty where you are? Are the birds singing?



Text by Philippa Campsie; Daguerre and Baldus photos from Wikimedia Commons; Marville photo from Bibliothèques spécialisées de la Ville de Paris; Cayeux and Nobécourt photographs from Paris Marais 43 (Créaphis Editions, 2015).


* Baldus is an unusual character. He was born in Germany, served with the Prussian army, moved to Paris in about 1838, found his métier as a photographer after 10 years of rejection  as a painter, helped found the Société Héliographique, exhibited his work at the Exposition Universelle in 1855, and as a result, received a commission from the Baron James de Rothschild to photograph his railway (Chemin de Fer du Nord) and its environs for a special album to be presented to Queen Victoria. This led to further commissions and considerable success. However, there was a secret in his past. In a recent exhibit of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the curator revealed that to supplement his meagre pay as a Prussian soldier, Baldus had resorted to forging money. Apparently he was better at that than at legitimate artwork, but not as good as he was at photography. The German police never caught up with him.


Posted in Paris architecture, Paris history, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

A pebble for Clare

The news comes in, day by day. Cancelled. Closed. Postponed. One by one, I delete events from my calendar. Well, I think, look at all the time I have to write the next blog. Funny how when you have all the time in the world, it becomes harder to focus.

My original plans for this month’s blog seemed out of step with the current situation, so, like many other writers, I started thinking about other times of emergency. Cholera. Spanish flu. War. And then I thought of Clare Gass.

I learned about her indirectly. As I wrote in an earlier blog, I have long been following a project called Flowers of the Forest, organized by Perth Academy in Scotland to honour the more than 160 men and one woman from the school who served and died in the First World War. My great-uncle John Lonsdale Sieber was among them.

Although the formal commemoration of the First World War ended in 2019, the project continues in a modified form, and the students continue to visit the battlefields and cemeteries in France and Belgium every spring (I don’t know if they will be able to go this year).

This year, Dave Dykes, who helps organize these events, had identified certain cemeteries in which former Perth Academy students were buried and came up with the idea of taking pebbles from their homes in Perth and placing them on the graves. Of the 14 men whose graves the students were to visit, the houses of 13 are still standing.

At the same time, he received an interesting letter. Over the years, Dave has built up an impressive network of people like me, relatives of those who died, who have contributed stories and mementos related to the fallen, and who support the Flowers of the Forest project in various ways. Recently, one sent Dave a copy of a letter written to her family about James Amess, a private in the Liverpool Regiment who died in a Canadian casualty clearing station near Esquelbecq in May 1918, aged 30. It was written by the nurse who had tended to him, Clare Gass.

As it turns out, Clare not only wrote letters to the families of the men she nursed, she kept a diary. And in 2000, her war diary was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. It is a remarkable document.

She came from Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, where she was born in 1887. Susan Mann’s introduction to her diary notes that she was “the oldest living child and only girl in a family of ten, three of whom did not survive infancy.” Her father owned a lumber mill and general store. She attended Edgehill School in Windsor, Nova Scotia, as a boarder.

This point interested me particularly. In the early 1970s, my godfather, John Derrick, was principal of Edgehill for a few years, as well as principal of the neighbouring boys’ school, King’s College. Eventually the two amalgamated, and they continue as King’s–Edgehill to this day. When I attended the University of King’s College in Halifax, I knew quite a few Edgehill alumnae. Immediately I could picture Clare at the big school building on the hill in Windsor.

Susan Mann suggests that Edgehill prepared Clare for a military nursing career in some ways: “Through the pattern of the school day, with its ‘rising bell’ at 7 a.m. to ‘lights out’ at 9:15 p.m., the girls were acquiring orderly, accepted discipline. Ten years later réveillé and last post would not be much different.” At Edgehill, she also met women who had chosen teaching careers instead of marriage and children.

As a teenager, Clare nursed her mother when she became ill after the birth of her youngest child, and this experience may have influenced her choice to train as a professional nurse in Montreal in 1909. This meant three more years of residence and discipline along with fellow women students.

Like my husband’s grandmother Elsie Pirie, another bespectacled nurse who did her training a few years earlier, Clare often used postcards to communicate with her family; some are now in the archives at Dalhousie University. Here is one sent from Montreal in 1909, announcing the start of her studies at the Montreal General Hospital.

After graduating in 1912, Clare did private-duty nursing in Montreal, before enlisting as a military nurse in 1915. Her attestation papers note that she had red hair and blue eyes. She received extra training and was sent overseas in May, arriving in France on May 18. Here are her very first impressions of France:

Went on board a small steamer at Folkestone…It was both foggy and rainy… I stayed on deck, we went at full speed. Near the entrance to Boulogne we passed two hospital ships leaving the port. We were conveyed by the Ambulance Waggons to our hotel, the Hotel Louvre. Such a funny place. Blue lights in the sitting room which are ghastly. A wide tiled hall. Close smelling rooms. Curtains of beautiful French embroidery palms & plants in abundance.

The diary continues with accounts of her work, but also of long walks or bicycle rides with other nurses when she had time off (where did she get the energy after a busy shift?), letters from family (three of her brothers were also serving), and quick impressions of the war.

I shall never forget the sound of the Motor Ambulances as they bring in the Convoys. The continual burr as they pass our huts, as one follow the other from the siding up to the highway, some slower than others according to the severity of the wounds of the patients they carry. (July 6, 1915)

Last night in the night a terrific explosion wakened us – an ammunition vessel we discovered later in the day has been blown up at the mouth of the harbour. (March 9, 1916)

A convoy of 55 came into D last night. All Australians from Beaupaume where the Germans are retiring. Such bad bad wounds. My heart aches for these poor lads so far from their home. Five shot through the chest, one arm blown off. One spine case paralyzed. One fractured pelvis. One pair of trench feet so bad that both feet will have to come off. (March 1, 1917)

In May 1918, when James Amess was in her care, she was at the No.2 Canadian Casualty Clearing Station, Remy Siding, on the Belgian border.

She was so busy that for many days that month (including the day of his death), there are no entries in her diary. In April, she noted that three nurses had returned to Canada.

We received heavily today both French & England patients. So many many hundred. Miss Gee & I are alone on the Ward. We are very short of Sisters. Those who have gone have not yet been replaced.

A few days later, May 5, she writes:

Our old hospital site is knocked to pieces. Ward H, the men’s dining room & the kitchens are no more. The Medical stores are smashed as is also the Estaminet at the Corner.

But she carries on. They all do. Ten days go by with only a single entry: “We have been very very busy for the last two weeks.” Yet in this period she found time to write to Amess’s family, and probably to other families as well.

Clare’s own brother Blanchard and her cousin Lawrence, with whom she had had a youthful romance, died in April 1917, within a day of each other. Her brother, Cyril, lost a foot at Ypres, but returned home. Another brother, Gerald, survived.

In September 1918, Clare was sent to England, and she nursed victims of the Spanish flu at a segregation hospital in Wales. It was her choice. “I offered my services in place of another who does not wish to go.” She and one other nurse were assigned to a 30-bed ward. “Such sick sick men. Many of them will die,” she noted, compassionately but realistically, on October 17, 1918.

Clare returned to Canada in December 1918, and served for most of the following year in a military convalescent hospital in Quebec, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue.

She was demobilized at the end of 1919 and for the next 30 or so years, she worked in social services in Montreal, retiring to Shubenacadie in 1952, where she continued to do volunteer work in the community. She never married. She died in Halifax in 1968, aged 81, and is buried at Preeper Hill Cemetery in Shubenacadie.

The Royal Canadian Legion in Shubenacadie has promised to send a pebble from Clare’s birthplace that the Perth Academy students will place in Esquelbecq, either this year, or next year, if they cannot go until then.

During the days ahead, I will think of Clare, and of the nurses and doctors who are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. May they all come home safely, as she did.

Text by Philippa Campsie. Portrait of Clare Gass from Parks Canada; postcards of Edgehill School and Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue from Pinterest; postcard to Clare’s father from Dalhousie Archives; photograph of CCS No. 2 from the website of the Ontario Archives, colourized.

For information about Clare Gass’s war diary, visit this page from McGill-Queen’s Press.


Posted in World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Petite Ceinture: Ring around the city

About 10 years ago, Norman and I were staying in part of a converted workshop in a courtyard in the 14th arrondissement. One day, as we walked towards the Porte de Vanves on a Saturday morning to visit the flea market, we crossed a bridge over a disused sunken railway and I took a picture of a cat on the tracks, all alone in its private domain.

It was the Petite Ceinture (the Little Belt), an old railway line ringing the city that predated the Metro by about  50 years.

We lingered on the bridge, looking down into a quiet green world. We’d heard that urban adventurers would climb over the fence and down the embankment to walk along the tracks and even into the tunnels. On another walk in the area, we did see some people down at track level.

On a later visit, when we were staying in a borrowed studio in the 16th around Christmastime, we crossed a level part of the Petite Ceinture nearly every day. It had been turned into a recreational trail, winding its way through Passy. The tracks were gone, but the right of way remained.

On this year’s trip in January, we were in Ménilmontant to visit Patrice Rambaud, an artist whose work I enjoy. We were early for our appointment, and noticed that just beyond the building there were steps going down to the old track. We followed them down and found a short stretch of track popular with dog walkers (mind your feet), with the remains of old platforms on either side, little flowerbeds in raised boxes, and a box for compost.

We mentioned to Patrice that we had explored the sunken line, and he suggested we check out the part in the 14th, the bit we had seen all those years earlier, which is now open to the public.

A few days later we took the bus to Avenue Général Leclerc. The former Montrouge station is now a pleasant café, and steps behind it lead down to the tracks. It was a cloudy weekday and there seemed to be nobody about. The walls at the bottom of the stairs were covered in graffiti. The line immediately went into a tunnel. We approached it warily. I had read online that this bit of line was soon to be closed for a few days for improvements to the lighting. That struck us as a Very Good Idea.

We debated whether to continue. The tunnel had several sets of arches on either side, which hid parts of the space from view as you walked through. The sight of some other walkers in the distance gave us more confidence and we went through the tunnel without incident and onto the main part of the pathway. At that point, the space broadened out, there was more vegetation and less graffiti and we began to enjoy ourselves.

After about a kilometre, we came to another tunnel that was fenced off and a metal staircase led upwards to street level. A group of young men were clustered near the steps, but a glance at their book bags showed that they were just lycéens from the local school hanging out at lunchtime.

Our walk continued through a recently completed and whimsically designed linear garden over the buried line. A sign explained that the tunnel underneath was home to the largest colony of chauves-souris (bats) in Europe. A children’s climbing structure paid homage to these creatures.

The Petite Ceinture was built in the 1850s and 1860s, but not all at once, and a variety of different interests were involved. One purpose was ostensibly military: a ring of fortifications had been completed in 1845 (the Thiers enceinte) and the army needed to move troops from one part of the fortifications to another.*

But a more pressing problem than troop movements at the time was that Paris’s eight main railway stations were owned by separate companies, with lines that did not connect. This was merely a nuisance for passengers passing through Paris, but it was a real barrier to the movement of goods by railway.

The first bit to be completed, in 1852, was in the northern part of the city, where huge freight yards converged on the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est. This line was then extended around the eastern part of the city to link the Gare du Nord with the Gare d’Austerlitz. Part of it was in a tunnel under Belleville. The short open stretch near Ménilmontant that we saw was part of that eastern extension.

Meanwhile, a different company built a passenger line connecting the Gare St-Lazare with Passy and Auteuil on the western side of the city. That was the part we saw in the 16th.

The final part was built in the 1860s and circled the southern part of the city. It was opened in time for the 1867 Exposition. The section we saw in the 14th belonged to this stretch.

The following map of the completed circle includes the schedule for passenger trains in the late 1860s. The pink circles are the stations.

This final stretch included a many-arched bridge where the line crossed the Seine at the “Point du Jour” (I explained the origins of this name in an earlier blog). The bridge, also known as the Viaduc d’Auteuil, is shown in a couple of postcards in our collection.

A blog devoted to this bridge includes an odd little film clip taken during the 1910 flood, during which rubbish was thrown into the Seine from the bridge because the routes to the regular disposal sites were under water and the authorities feared that the build-up of garbage would cause disease. This bridge was one of the few that was still well above the water line; it was also at the farthest downstream point of the city.

The bridge was damaged in the Second World War, demolished in 1959, and replaced with the Garigliano bridge in the 1960s.

Clearly not all of the line was at or below street level – there were some elevated stretches, and I hope to visit them on our next trip. The viaducts on either side of the vanished Point du Jour bridge have gone, but one stretch of elevated line can be reached from a flight of stairs where the line crosses the rue de Vaugirard in the 15th, shown in this screen capture from Google Street View.

At first, the line was simply called the Ceinture, until a “Grande Ceinture” line was added in the 1870s and 1880s, also ringing the city, but about 15 km farther out, serving communities such as Versailles. It too carried freight and passengers. Some bits of this line are still in use.

Passenger service on the Petite Ceinture ended in the 1930s, although parts of the line continued to be used for freight until the early 1990s. Then the whole thing was sealed off and left undisturbed, other than by cats, bats, and a few urban adventurers. The vegetation closed in and wildflowers proliferated.

Years went by. What to do with the space? There were meetings. Studies. Consultations. More meetings. More studies. Much talk of biodiversity. Some talk of commercialization. The question of reviving the circle line for its original use was mooted, but abandoned in favour of regular surface transit (part of this line is still identified as “PC” on the bus map). For many years, a botanist who worked for the city was allowed to give guided walking tours along parts of the line.

The first bit to reopen to the public, in 2007, was the trail in the 16th, perhaps because it was at street level and easily accessible. Then a bit in the 12th with a garden. Then a longish stretch in the 15th. Then the 13th. Then the 20th. Then the 14th. Each arrondissement seems to have dealt with its stretch of the line in its own way, which makes the open stretches interestingly varied. It also means that finding out about access may require one to consult the mairies of different arrondissements.

Of the more than 25 stations of the Petite Ceinture, a few survive. Some were down beside the tracks, some perched over them. Some, like the Montrouge station and the Passy Station, have become cafés or restaurants.

A few survivors are buried behind new facades, like the former Ornano station, now La Recyclerie.

To us, it seems that the Petite Ceinture benefited from decades of benign neglect. The flowers flourished. The bats found an undisturbed place to hang out. Cats could sun themselves without fear of dogs. I hope that opening up the spaces will not destroy what charmed us all those years ago – the prospect of a hidden world where life continues at its own pace above or below the busy streets of Paris.

Text and contemporary photographs by Philippa Campsie; postcards of Ornano Station, Point du Jour bridge, and Montsouris from our postcard collection; map and postcard of Ménilmontant from Gallica; images of La Recyclerie and rue de Vaugirard from Google Street view.

*The Petite Ceinture was indeed used to move troops during the turbulence of the Paris Commune in 1871.


Posted in Paris bridges, Paris history, Paris maps, Paris travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Reconsider.

Wherever we go in Paris, we see signs exhorting us to respect the environment, on garbage containers or in shops.  The sign in the photograph below (look carefully) says, “L’environnement au coeur de nos priorités” (the environment is at the heart of our priorities). I want to believe that they mean what they say.

As in Toronto, city officials and residents in Paris are increasing their efforts to reduce the amount of waste generated, and divert more and more of what is thrown away to reuse and recycling.

Of course, there is one significant difference between Paris and Toronto. Parisians incinerate their unrecyclable garbage in Issy-les-Moulineaux; Torontonians put theirs into a landfill near London, Ontario. In Toronto we know that every plastic toothbrush we have ever owned and thrown out is Still Out There Somewhere, which is a disquieting thought. Moreover, we know that not everything sent for recycling is actually recycled, and that not everything diverted from the waste stream is, in fact, diverted.

So the ubiquitous signs made me wonder about how Paris stands in relation to the 3Rs – reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Certainly, the city is good at reusing urban spaces, such as the Viaduc des Arts in the 12th arrondissement that was once a railway line and is now a collection of studios and boutiques under the arches with a promenade plantée on top. More recently, the city has found new uses for the old Petite Ceinture – the belt-line railway that closed in the 1930s. The bits of the line that are open to the sky have been made accessible to joggers and dog walkers after many years of neglect.

Reuse on a smaller scale is also encouraged. On a previous summer visit, we wandered into the courtyard of the Institut Protestant de Théologie, in which artists were invited to give new life to used materials. A heap of reusable items was spread out on the ground in the college courtyard for artists to choose from. The results were certainly fun to look at, although it was really more about creativity than about environmental responsibility.

Second-hand shops are fairly common, and we have noticed book exchanges and other ways to keep materials in use.

Many people, ourselves included, have reusable shopping bags. We inevitably acquire new ones on each visit. And yes, I know that the energy involved in making reusable bags requires us to use them hundreds of times to justify their existence. All I can say is that we’re working on it.

As for recycling, it is a visible part of every walk we take, as we pass the various receptacles used here.

Paper, metal, and some plastic go into green bins with yellow lids. (Note the Tesla just behind the bins.)

Glass goes either into a green bin with a white lid that is specially designed to accept bottles, or into a bottle bank. Unfortunately, the bottle bank on the nearby boulevard is always removed just before major manifestations – presumably to prevent the use of its contents as projectiles.

When it was taken away in mid-January, we found an alternative. Not far away is a small, unassuming little receptacle that allows for the collection of glass underground. I think this is rather nifty.

There are also bins for textiles and clothing, some of which is sent for reuse and the rest for textile recycling.

Composting food scraps requires access to a “brown box,” but as of early 2020, these are available only in the 2nd, 12th and 19th arrondissements; we in the 14th do not have these yet. (Municipal compost is well established in Toronto.) But we spotted one on a walk.

Christmas trees can be deposited in 195 neighbourhood parks across the city for pick-up and composting for use in public spaces. Most Paris Christmas trees are quite small and light and taking them to a park is feasible.

Electronics recycling is available through some electronics stores. And some shops offer take-back programs for plastic containers and packaging. It’s a start, but there is a long way to go in the area of beauty products, most of which involve more packaging than product.

Even museums that distribute sticky badges to identify museum-goers who have paid the entrance fee are trying to keep the badges from getting attached to the nearest lamppost when the visitor leaves the museum.

Whatever is left over from these waste-diversion efforts goes into green bins with green lids, to be picked up by green trucks staffed by men in green uniforms.

Nonetheless, rubbish accumulates. Efforts are being made, not always successfully, to deal with the problem of mégots (cigarette butts). The poster says that Paris accumulates 350 tonnes of the things per year, and urges smokers to stub out their cigarettes and put them into public garbage bins.

There is still a lot of single-use plastic in circulation. Plastic water bottles are everywhere. And more and more people are buying ready-made or take-out meals in individual plastic containers, while food companies try to keep up with demand.

We bought a container of carrot salad that came with a tiny folding fork on the inside of the lid. A little notice on the lid informed us that we could reuse this fork up to 20 times. (I am not making this up.) For heaven’s sake, why offer the fork at all? Most people do not need it, and who on earth would reuse it 20 times?

As for buying in bulk (en vrac) with reusable containers, such outlets do exist in Paris, but they are thin on the ground, and in out-of-the-way locations. I have yet to discover one in the 14th.

In certain quarters, the anti-plastic thing has become, as such things do here, a fashion. The popular shop Merci sells glass drinking straws in bright colours (although why able-bodied grown-ups need drinking straws at all is a question for which I have no satisfactory answer). Utensils in wood and bamboo are making an appearance in a few food outlets (and have recently been adopted by Air France, as we found out on our flight home).

An upscale hardware store on the rue du Bac offers an array of old-fashioned cleaning implements in wood and metal, offering the fantasy of cleaning one’s house as if one were on the staff at Downton Abbey.

At the same time, there are some long-standing traditions of conservation in France that predate our current concerns about the environment. Les minuteries (timed light switches) prevent hall lights being left on unnecessarily (the subject of endless jokes by English-speaking travellers unaccustomed to such things). Cold-water-only taps are common in restaurant and museum washrooms. Electricity and petrol are expensive, and are not wasted as much as they are in North America. And ingrained traditions of thrift persist among Parisians who remember the war (or who grew up with parents who did) and have never fully embraced the use-and-toss consumer lifestyle.

My decidedly unscientific survey suggests that Paris is making some progress in reusing and recycling, but has not fully embraced the ethos of “reduce,” any more than Toronto has. Particularly not during the January season of soldes (sales), when shops are desperate to clear out unsold merchandise in order to bring in new items.

Then I opened a copy of Le Monde and found this cartoon:

The EU customs officer is asking the baffled captain of a container ship that is belching black smoke into the sky: “Anything to declare? No plastic swizzle sticks or disposable baby wipes?”

It made me laugh and made me think. Yes, we can all do much more to avoid creating rubbish and to dispose of it responsibly, but the greatest gains may not be made by individual consumers, no matter how many shopping bags we carefully reuse and how many bottles we dutifully recycle.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie; photograph of green garbage truck from the website of the Ville de Paris.

Posted in Paris civic functions | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Early one morning

We do not, as a rule, take early-morning walks in Paris. If we do not have a morning appointment, we tend to dawdle over breakfast, reading and chatting and enjoying the view from the windows. Quick showers are not an option: the apartment has a deep bathtub that is an invitation to more reading, or to daydreaming. By the time we are on our way, we are ready for mid-morning coffee or even lunch.

So I do not remember what it was about that June morning that got us out the door at 6:30 a.m. It was not an invitingly sunny day; it had rained overnight and the sky was still grey. We took an umbrella. But something drew us outdoors, where the stallholders were setting up the market on the boulevard.

We passed a snail, heading towards the lettuce stall, clearly hoping for a dropped leaf.

He was quite safe; the boulevard was deserted.

We turned down the rue de la Santé, past the high prison walls on one side and the lower walls of the Lycée Notre Dame de France on the other, with its empêche-pipi in a corner.

A worker for the sanitation department waved at us from his green truck as we walked under the elevated Metro line on the boulevard Saint-Jacques.

From there, we wandered down the rue Ferrus, curious about the archway visible at its far end. As we got nearer it resolved itself into the blue gate of the Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Anne, with a pigeon surveying the scene from the knob on top.

As we stood peering through the gate, the man in the guardhouse invited us to come in and look around.

The interior boulevard drew us into a miniature town.

There were streets and sidewalks and walls and streetlights. I took a photo of one of the lights and only later, as I re-examined the photo, noticed the plaque about the huge German bomb – “obus” – that had fallen here near the end of the First World War.

There were parks and gardens on every side, many with statues.

A war memorial indicated that this was, in fact, a psychiatric hospital.

Eventually we found a plaque that answered some of our questions. In the 15th century, the site had housed a sanitarium for people with contagious diseases, which was given the name of Sainte-Anne in 1650 in honour of its patron Anne of Austria (mother of Louis XIV). It included a farm where the patients could work as they regained their health.

In the 1860s, on the orders of Napoleon III, this hospital-farm was transformed into a psychiatric institution for the treatment of and research into mental illness. Napoleon III asked Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to make it happen, and Haussmann delegated the task to an architect called Charles-Auguste Questel. Another historic panel showed the buildings in his original plan, many of which are still standing.

A motto from Questel was included on the descriptive plaque:

« Il faut penser sans cesse à l’harmonie générale, les détails viendront toujours. »

“One must think continuously of the general harmony, the details will always come.”

The principle seems to have worked well here. A “general harmony” was evident in the arrangement of larger buildings, smaller pavilions, colonnades, paths, gardens, and wooded areas (we later found a website from which we learned that there are more than 1,000 trees on this 14-hectare site).

Granted, it was so early in the day that there was nobody about, but we were struck by the sense of peace and calm as we explored.

Eventually we returned to the front gate and turned left into the rue Cabanis, where we passed an unusual installation: three glass-fronted panels containing wooden boards on which words in distinctive capital letters had been carved. An explanatory panel provided a transcription. Another identified them as the “Plancher de Jeannot.”

They are floorboards, taken from a house in the Béarn region near the Pyrenees, carved by a young man who had returned traumatized from fighting the war in Algeria in 1959 to find that his violent and abusive father had committed suicide. When his mother died in 1971, he withdrew from the world and carved a message into the floor of his room, beginning with the words:


“Religion invented machines to control the mind of people and animals…”

He died not long after completing his message, in 1972, aged 33. Two decades later, his sad testimonial was found and conserved by the purchaser of the farm – a retired psychiatric doctor. The boards have been exhibited in museums as examples of “art brut” (outsider or naïve art) – which seems disrespectful to the sufferings of this young man, who was not trying to create art, but to put into words what he saw as the source of his suffering. The boards finally found a home near the Sainte-Anne Hospital, where passersby may draw their own conclusions about what they mean and how they should be considered.

Our final discovery came as we made our way home along the Avenue René Coty. Another hospital, in a beautiful 18th-century building – the Hôpital Rochefoucauld. It was originally intended for aged and ill members of the military and clergy. It is now a geriatric and palliative care hospital.

In stark contrast with the serene white buildings is a small, ugly, much-graffitied hut on the lawn.

What on earth? we wondered. On Google Maps, this blot on the landscape is identified as “Regard XXV de l’aqueduc Medicis.” Wikipedia helpfully provides the alternative name of “Regard de Saux.” All this takes a bit of translation.

In fact, it is a very old and elaborate cover for a shaft allowing maintenance staff access to an underground watermain (what used to be called a “manhole”). “Regard” probably meant it allowed people to go down and take a look. There were 27 of these Regards along the route of the Medici aqueduct from Rungis, which is south of Paris, into the city. The aqueduct dates from 1623 and is still in service, an admirable example of long-lasting municipal infrastructure. The last of the “regards” is a fairly large building beside the Observatoire.

We were home by 8:30 a.m. Our walk through the 14th arrondissement had evoked its history as an area beyond the old city walls filled with convents and monasteries, with their gardens and orchards and tree-lined walkways. A few convents remain, glimpsed through archways or beyond high walls. The many hospitals in this district are their legacy, for hospitality and caring for the sick was once the work of religious establishments.

Two vast convent gardens survive – one behind the Monastère de la Visitation, visible from the rue Boissonade, another behind the Maison Santé des Soeurs Augustines, part of which is just visible from the very end of the Square de Port Royal. We have walked all around the blocks in which these gardens form the centre, hoping for a better view, but have always been disappointed. Perhaps we need to get up earlier in the morning…

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie; photograph of the Plancher de Jeannot from Google Street View.

We wish all our readers a very happy New Year in 2020.

Posted in Paris gardens, Paris history, Paris hospitals, Paris parks, Paris quartiers, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

It never hurts to ask

The Institut de France on the Left Bank of the Seine, near the Pont des Arts, is a familiar sight. We’ve walked past many times, and never thought we’d have occasion to enter it ourselves. But one never knows where research will take one. Just follow the rules. Or not, as the case may be.

Rule # 1: It never hurts to ask.

I had identified an obscure document from a meeting of the Académie des Sciences in 1824 that had a bearing on my research into the work of Charles Barbier. I honestly did not expect that the document would have survived the intervening 195 years, but, on the off-chance, I sent an e-mail from Canada to the Académie archives. A day or so later, I received a cordial reply: Yes, it was there. When would I like to come in and see it?

Rule #2: Be prepared for hurdles.

I asked cautiously about what was required to gain access to their reading room. Oh, it was just a matter of making an appointment and providing a piece of photo identification. This sounded far too easy. I remember the trouble I had gone to secure a reader’s pass at the Bibliothèque St-Geneviève when I was a student. I had to provide several photos and fill in endless forms and I did not get access to the library until several days later.

So I made the appointment for shortly after our arrival in Paris, on the assumption that I would probably need to go back if I could not get access to the archives immediately.

On a sunny April day, Norman and I presented ourselves to the security guard at the front gate. He examined our passports and retained them, and directed us to the innermost of the three courtyards, last entrance on the right, up to the top floor. We crossed the courtyard, admiring the sun dials and fountains, pleased at our progress so far.

The archives occupied a pleasant room under the roof, with views over the courtyard on one side and the rue Mazarine on the other. It wasn’t very large, but then, the number of researchers who sought out this obscure space was probably not large either.

Rule #3: Always bring a book.

I filled out a form with details of the documents I wanted. It was probably the least complicated form I have ever seen in France.

Then I settled down to wait. I wasn’t in a rush. We had all day. I delved into my bag for a book. I had barely taken it out when the document was in front of me. So much for that rule.

Rule #4: Research results never resemble your expectations.

The document itself was a surprise. I had expected some sort of multi-page report, but what I saw was a large piece of thick paper, almost like a poster, folded up and inscribed in the tiniest of printing. The title mentioned Persian and Chinese shorthand, but there was no sign or mention of Persian or Chinese in the text or illustrations. Curiouser and curiouser. Now I know why the Académie des Sciences in 1824, having accepted Barbier’s document and agreed to write a report on its contents, never did anything with it. Clearly their members could not make head or tail of Barbier’s peculiar venture into alternative writing forms. Neither could I.

I asked if I could photograph it, expecting to be refused. Mais bien sûr, allez-y. This was starting to feel surreal. All the barriers I had imagined were simply disintegrating. But the best was yet to come.

Rule #5: Always ask for suggestions about further research.

After transcribing the document (not easy with such small writing) and taking several photographs of its strange scripts, we got into conversation with one of the librarians and explained about the search for Barbier’s work. She expressed interest and suggested we make inquiries at the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale.

I was gobsmacked. That Napoleonic-era organization still existed? I knew that Barbier had had dealings with it, but I never dreamed that it was still a functioning entity. Ah yes, just across from the Eglise Saint-Germain, right on the square. It was perhaps a fifteen-minute walk away.

We gathered up our things and set off back through the courtyards, feeling slightly giddy.

Rule #6: Persist.

The building was as described, but what startled us at first was that part of the ground floor had been turned into a restaurant. Two women in fashionable attire and extremely high heels asked us what we wanted. We explained and one gestured to a set of glass doors, beyond which was an ordinary-looking office.

There I poured out my story to a woman behind a desk. She looked thoughtful and asked us to wait while she made a telephone call. This took a little time, but then she told us we were in luck (we knew that already). Although it was the Easter holidays, and the building was undergoing painting and renovations, one of their members, a retired engineer, was working upstairs on an inventory of the Société’s books and documents and would be prepared to help us. She would take us to see him.

We took a short elevator ride, and then crossed a large empty space the size of a ballroom.

A corridor on the other side led to a narrow staircase. We went up to the top floor. There was a strong smell of fresh paint.

Once more we found ourselves in a room under the roof with sloping ceilings. A man sat at a crowded desk, surrounded by piles of books and documents.

I launched into my usual explanation. He made another, even longer phone call to another member of the organization. Then he asked us to follow him to a nearby room. It was essentially the attic of the building, containing shelves of books, now swathed in drop-cloths to protect them from the painters. The books were bound copies of the Bulletin of the Société and they were indexed. There were several index entries for Charles Barbier.

Finding the relevant pages took a little time, and one bound volume seemed to be missing, but we found more than enough to make the trip worthwhile. The helpful man said he would see us back downstairs, but on the way he said he had something to show us.

Rule #7: Pay attention to your surroundings.

In the huge ballroom, he stopped in front of a plaque, which stated that the first public presentation of a moving image by one of the Lumière Brothers had taken place in this room in front of the Société’s members in March 1898. Not long before, we had attended a public lecture about the culture of the spectacle in Paris in which this event had been mentioned, so we were particularly interested and very glad that he had taken the time to show us.

He even turned on the lights in the ballroom, which began to look a bit grander and less abandoned, despite the ugly modern chairs and plastic tables.

It was extraordinary to be standing in this room, the site of events attended by Paris’s leading industrialists and thinkers in the 19th and early 20th century. It was quiet and we seemed miles away from the busy Boulevard St-Germain, which was just beyond the windows.

Eventually we reeled out onto the square and back into the 21st century. We decided to treat ourselves to a good lunch nearby. We celebrated our productive morning and toasted one final rule of research:

Rule #8: Most really interesting discoveries are a matter of serendipity.

Text by Philippa Campsie; opening photograph of Institut exterior from Google street view; all other photos by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball.

Posted in Paris history | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments