Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 3: TOUCH
Chapter 23. A Walk on the Wild Side
My loves of long ago were girls of humble birth.
Margot the laundress and the seamstress Fanchon.
Not too noble (pardon my French),
They were, you might say, Graces with dirty faces,
Nymphs of the gutter, Venuses from the city gates.
You see, my Prince … one had the ladies of long ago
As and where one could.
GEORGE BRASSENS, “The Loves of Long Ago”
In the fifteenth century, it was believed that the disease of scrofula, a swelling of the lymph nodes, could be cured if the sufferer was touched by the hand of a monarch. At public ceremonies, Henry IV of France ministered to as many as fifteen hundred victims at a time. Louis XV blessed two thousand, but he sometimes moved anonymously through the city at night, seeking out those afflicted by the disease which, because of this superstition, was known as King’s Evil.
There is no district of Paris where that world of superstition and deception seems closer than the Marais. As my aunts used to say of wayward cousins, it is no better than it should be. Even more so today, nothing there is what it seems. Antique façades are preserved but their uses change, so that a nineteenth-century shop front announcing Boulanger or Pharmacien actually sells handbags. Old houses are knocked into “boutique” hotels. Their tiny rooms look out on courtyards which, for all their optimistic landscaping, are still recognizable as airshafts.
Repeatedly threatened with demolition, the seventeenth-century mansions and crooked streets of the Marais barely escaped the wrecking crews of Baron Haussmann in the 1860s. Jewish merchants who settled there were shrewd enough to leave it looking derelict. By retaining the original name, which means “marsh” or “swamp,” and maintaining the houses and streets in unattractive dilapidation, they kept it a slumberous slum until after World War II.
Such postwar movies as Jean Cocteau’s Orphée and Marcel Carné’s Les Portes de la Nuit show the district as it was at the time of Sartre and Camus: rundown and crumbling, plaster chipped, doors and windows bricked up, walls splattered with posters. Le Corbusier would have flattened the whole thing, replacing it with concrete unites d’habitation neatly spaced in a park, like some high-rise memorial. Instead, an expanding young middle class in search of cheap accommodation surged in, pulling back the dusty curtains and dragging its treasures into the light.
There, however, its transformation ceased. Alarmed by Paris’s runaway gentrification, the state stepped in with laws that severely limited renovations. André Malraux, de Gaulle’s minister for culture, revived one of Haussmann’s more obscure rules and required all buildings to steam-clean their façades every thirty years. By the time I came to France, the transformation was almost complete. The Marais was chic. So many guidebooks warn visitors not to miss this supposedly undiscovered corner of the city that one can barely move for pedestrians spilling off the narrow sidewalks. It’s also the preferred address for Paris’s gay culture. On weekends, streets are closed to any cars but those of locals, and mobs block the sidewalks outside such hookup spots as the L’Open or Cox.
All this has made the Marais, of all the districts in central Paris, the one I most avoid. It shares something with London’s Soho, New York’s West Village, and the Royal Mile in Edinburgh; a place to take out-of-towners; one more sight, like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. So I initially resisted when Louise mentioned she was going there to hunt fripes—vintage clothes.
“You don’t find it a bit … well, vieux jeu?”
“Some of my favorite jeux are vieux,” she said, and, in return for lunch, offered to show me a Marais more branché—switched on—than the one I knew.
“Looks the same to me,” I grumbled as we bucked pedestrian traffic on rue du Renard, the unlovely street that runs along the back of the Pompidou Center, and marks the western border of the Marais.
“You think? See across the road?”
From a wall in tiny Place Igor-Stravinsky, a white face six stories high rolled its eyes at me and held a finger to enormous lips. Who put that there? I crossed to check. Another work by star wall painter Jean-François Perroy, aka Jef Aérosol, it’s called, appropriately, Chuuuttt!—Shsssh!
Chuuuttt! was too new for the guidebooks. But guides have never meant much here. Hotspots shift by the month, and businesses are lucky to last a season. Pausing at a hat shop, Louise tried on a gaudy cerise beret from a display spilling onto the pavement. The place was so new they still hadn’t painted out the signage of the previous owner, a Proxi minimarket.
The Marais churns. It always has. Though shops with signs in Hebrew bolstered its image as the Jewish quarter of Paris, that was fading fast. Gay culture has displaced many old delis and cafés. Laundromats are now get-fit centers, offering steam rooms and “happy ending” massages. Every maison de presse displayed the beefcake covers of the gay glossy Têtu. Bookshops flaunted images of washboard stomachs and jutting jockstraps. The largest bookseller in the Marais is Les Mots à la Bouche—literally, “words in the mouth,” a pun on l’eau à la bouche—mouthwatering—and the perfect encapsulation of the district’s prevailing sense: appetite. This is the city that kisses. Perfumeries scented the air with fragrances as the young and beautiful, flawless as shop window mannequins, prowled the narrow sidewalks. Everywhere, people ate as they walked, licking their fingers, holding hands, acknowledging that here the sense of touch reigned supreme.
To many, these sticky fingers and fumbling hands clashed with the district’s synagogues and museums commemorating the dead of Auschwitz, but they were in the minority. No stranger to diaspora, the Jews of the Marais are once again on the move. The closing of Joe Goldenberg’s, oldest and most respected of the Marais’s deli restaurants, marked the end of an era. Edmund White found it “wonderfully cozy with its steaming bowls of chicken soup and dumplings and its goulash and poppy seed cake, its strolling gypsy violinists and palm readers, its pair of lazy, over-fed dogs and its floor-to-ceiling paintings of rabbis in their prayer shawls or of near-Chagall blue pigs and flying musicians.” Sufficiently rugged to survive a 1982 attack by Arab terrorists in which a number of people died, Goldenberg’s suffered more insidious assaults from the Bureau de Santé on its standard of hygiene. These proved more lasting and, in time, fatal.
Though a handful of Jewish bakeries still survive along rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie and rue des Rosiers, fewer offer traditional challah and strudel. The clientele has migrated to the two branches of LegayChoc, whose big sellers are bread rolls and jam tarts shaped like hefty genitalia. And Louise smiled at a sign outside the confectionery Les Paris Gourmandes on rue des Archives.
“It says they sell coucougnettes.”
“It means ‘testicles.’”
Inside the tiny shop, smelling of chocolate and vanilla, the vendeuse, straight-faced, explained that the fuzzy pink spheroids were a typical confection of the south, made from almond paste molded around chocolate. We left with a glassine bag filled with them, just the thing to pass around with coffee at the next dinner party.
Louise abandoned me for an hour to rummage in the melee of Free’P’Star, one of Paris’s growing roster of fripperies and dépôts-ventes—secondhand clothing stores. A poster on its door advertised Décors de Bordels, an exhibition of brothel photos being held opposite the old premises of Le Chabanais, once Paris’s most luxurious whorehouse. Tempting though this was, I decided to spend the time at the truly weird but utterly French Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature.
Supposedly devoted to hunting and nature, the museum celebrates animals through the joy of slaughtering them. Armories of antique firearms lead to entire menageries of mounted heads. Paintings on the same theme decorate the walls. An exhibit invites us to identify birds by their song, presumably as an aid to shooting the edible ones. Elsewhere, sliding drawers in a series of elegantly designed cabinets display clay impressions of spoor and other signs of animals in the wild. Need to know what wolf droppings look like? Seek no farther.
I rejoined a slightly disheveled but triumphant Louise, clutching bulging bags. Apparently hunting had been good.
“I suppose you want to go to the L’As du Fallafel,” I said. (L’As, by the way, means “The Ace.”)
“Well … it’s supposed to be the best in Paris … written up in the New York Times …”
“Exactly. Look at it.”
Modishness had fallen like a curse on this modest lunch counter. Scores of hungry clients queued in the chill. Others wandered about the street, trying to eat bulging pitas and not drip tahini sauce on their clothes. Its prosperity irritates the rival falafel restaurant opposite, the owners of which glare at the competition and hand out leaflets stressing the authenticity of their product.
She pointed down the block. “Chez Marianne. If you don’t mind vegetarian.”
I didn’t. Not when it was an overflowing taster plate of Moroccan-style falafel, stuffed peppers, humus, eggplant caviar, tzatziki, tarama, and a surprising combination of artichoke heart with orange peel, all served by the actual Marianne, identifiable from her portrait, busty and beaming, on the cover of the menu.
And dessert? Just a coffee—and an inspiration from Louise. Dipping into her purse, she fished out the bag from Les Paris Gourmands. Of course—coucougnettes, the perfect Marais delicacy.
As I walked back home across the Seine, my fingers were still sticky with the delicacies I’d nibbled at Chez Marianne. Their tackiness resonated with the omnipresent sense of appetite that hung over the ancient lanes and shops. I imagined walking those narrow thoroughfares at night, fingers gliding over old stone, slick tile, metal, flesh. Thanks to my daughter, one of the fashion-conscious young, the door was now temptingly ajar. With the taste of coucougnettes still on my tongue, I wondered what other secrets of the Marais remained to be discovered. I was soon to find out.