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Posts from the ‘Rue de la Huchette’ Category

29
Oct

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

ELLIOT PAUL, AN AMERICAN JOURNALIST, first walked into the rue de la Huchette in the summer of 1923. “There,” he wrote, “I found Paris”.

The rue de la Huchette looking to the east

The Last Time I Saw Paris is a memoir by Elliot Paul of his time in Paris between the First and Second World Wars. For most of that time, he worked as a journalist for the Paris Herald (now the International Herald Tribune) and he lived in the rue de la Huchette.

In the book, Paul paints an absorbing picture of daily life in the rue de la Huchette bringing together a cast of characters, from the stately Monsieur de Malancourt to l’Hibou, the tramp, from the culturally precocious Hyacinth to a flock of prostitutes. He weaves their friendships and enmities, culture and way of life into a rich and compelling tapestry.

The rue de la Huchette looking to the west

Today, the rue de la Huchette is a street with more gift shops than you could shake a stick at, more restaurants per square metre than anywhere else in Paris, most of them Greek, it’s a street constantly awash with tourists and it has perhaps the best jazz club in town.

Having read the book, I thought it would be interesting to follow in Elliot Paul’s footsteps and explore the rue de la Huchette.

Early afternoon sounds of the rue de la Huchette:

Rue de la Huchette by Eugène Atget

“The rue de la Huchette, in time and space, had a beginning, a middle and an ending. Centuries ago, when Paris was a walled city on the Île de la Cité and cows were pastured in what is now the place St. Germain, some of the first Parisians to quit the fortified island area settled along the left bank of the Seine. The rue de la Huchette runs parallel to the river, just a few yards south of the quai. No one seems to be clear about the meaning of its name, least of all the modern inhabitants.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

Rue du Chat Qui Pêche today

“The middle section of the street was cut, but not crossed, by two streets even smaller than the rue de la Huchette – the rue Zacharie and the rue du Chat Qui Pêche (street of the cat who fishes), so named because in the early days before the quai was built, a cat used to fish in the cellars when the Seine was high. The rue du Chat Qui Pêche had the distinction of being the narrowest and shortest in the world, with only one window not more than a foot square and no doors at all.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The Bureau de Police

“On one corner of the rue du Chat Qui Pêche stood the Bureau de Police, not important enough to rate a police car. It was lucky to have a telephone. The ‘flics’ or cops, used bicycles or patrolled soundlessly on foot, invariably in pairs.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former Bureau de Police today

“Le Panier Fleurie, the neighbourhood bordel run by Madame Mariette, was opposite the station house on the corner of the rue Zacharie.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former bordel, Le Panier Fleurie, today

“The south-east corner was occupied by a laundry which employed three hard-working girls and also served as a ‘clandestin’. That is to say, men who found it banal to patronise the orthodox establishment could, if they were known to Mme. Lanier, go upstairs with the laundress of their choice. This illegal arrangement increased the income of Mme. Lanier, her non-productive husband, and the girls, and, in the opinion of the easy-going sergeant, did no one any harm.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former laundry and ‘clandestin’ today

“The eastern end of the rue de la Huchette revolved around the Hôtel du Caveau.

There I found Paris – and France.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former Hôtel du Caveau today

Late afternoon sounds of the rue de la Huchette:

“In contrast with the Hôtel du Caveau, the residents and personnel of the Hôtel Normandie did not seem one weirdly assorted family. The Gentile patron did not beat his wife, a sad-faced Jewish woman from the Temple quarter, but he let her do practically all the work that the one-armed garcon, Louis, did not volunteer to do, when his own huge share had been accomplished.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former Hôtel Normandie today

“At the eastern end, next door to the Hôtel du Caveau, was the tiny stationary shop of Achille and Geneviève Taitbout, a small squint-eyed couple who shuffled around wearily, maintaining a perpetual relationship in their movements, like figures on a stage. Their daily routine involved getting up at five in the morning to receive a bundle of newspapers brought by a lad on a bicycle. On the infrequent occasions when the delivery boy did not show up, or was late, they pottered and muttered collectively, like a mechanical toy running down.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former papeterie today

“Green vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, etc., were purchased by Monsieur Henri in Les Halles, or central markets, with skill and discrimination. Some of his staple groceries he bought at the local Épicerie, or grocery, at N° 27, called ‘L’Épicerie Danton’ and owned by Jean-Baptiste Emile Denis Emanuel Corre and his wife, Gabrielle, who looked like a porcelain doll. Mme Corre had style without chic, and a kind of beauty without savour that remained constant throughout the years.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former L’Épicerie Danton today

“The horse butcher in the rue de la Huchette, N° 13, also had a sideline of mending hunting horns, so that when one passed his awninged and curtained doorway with the golden horse’s head aloft, one frequently heard their flourishes or plaintive moans.

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former horse butchers today

“… the florist at N° 23 had steady customers from large restaurants and hotels. The shop of Madame Durand was situated within easy walking distance of the fragrant Marché aux Fleurs behind the prefecture. Two mornings a week this market spilled over its boundaries on the quai and flooded the near-by bridges with potted plants and cut flowers, not to mention shrubs and, in season, Christmas trees. Therefore Albertine Durand could undersell other florists who could not have their wares transported so cheaply and easily. So Madame Durand did a business quite out of proportion to the size of our street. She got up at five every morning, dressed without waking her husband, the Gentile inspector of kosher meat, whose hours were from eight to six.

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

Madame Durand’s florists shop today

“The spade-bearded Monsieur Saint-Aulaire, who presided over the two-man tailor shop at N° 21, could not afford an atelier on the boulevard. He had never prospered, and never gone broke. So he acted as if he were tailor by appointment to the Duc de Guise (pretender to the throne), and although his manners were impeccable, he did not consider it as much of an honour to make a chalk-mark on the shoulder of Senator Berenger as on that of the penniless Honoré de Senlis, who played billiards with a duke.”

Monsieur Saint-Aulaire’s tailor shop today

Like most long-time residents in Paris, I’ve become quite selective about which places in this city are my favourites and which are not. When I tell other long-time residents that one of my favourite places in Paris is the Rue de la Huchette I usually get, at best, a sideways glance or, more commonly, a look of total bewilderment.

But every time I walk along this street, Elliot Paul’s compelling inages of this place in the inter-war years always transcend today’s seemingly never-ending gift shops and eateries. Woolly hats and kebabs give way to images, not only of the the people I’ve already mentioned, but to Luttenschlager selling his articles of piety, Noël, the taxidermist, Dorlan the bookbinder, Gilottes at the bakery, Julien and Mme. Julien the barber and hairdreser, Joli, the cleaner and dyer, Gion and Bernice and their music shop not to mention Maurice, pedlar of goldfish. Of course, the threat of the Second World War endowed all these quiet, heroic lives with a tragic poignancy.

I’m just sorry that I haven’t (yet) been able to find any sounds of the rue de la Huchette during the inter-war years to match the word pictures that Elliot Paul paints but my search will continue.

Oh, yes … the jazz club! It’s in the basement of the former Hôtel du Caveau and I promise you, it’s well worth a visit. You’ll find jazz here to satisfy every taste. You might like to take a look at this to give you a flavour!

 

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