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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!



Métro Station Châtelet – A Sound Portrait

THE PARIS MÉTRO SYSTEM is reputedly the second busiest Métro system in Europe after Moscow and the Métro station Châtelet – Les Halles is said to be the largest Métro station in the world.

Métro Châtelet Entrance – Place Sainte-Opportune

Châtelet Métro station is named after the medieval Place du Châtelet, which in turn is named after the Grand Châtelet, a castle over the northern approach to the old Pont au Change over the Seine to the Île de la Cité, which was demolished by Napoléon in 1802. The Grand Châtelet lost its defensive purpose in 1190 when Philip Augustus built a rampart around the perimeter of the city; from then on it served as the headquarters of the prévôt de Paris, the official “charged with protection of royal rights, oversight of royal administration, and execution of royal justice” in late medieval Paris. Amongst other things, the Grand Châtelet was known for its subterranean dungeons and, for the ordinary citizen, it was a place to avoid at all costs.

Grande Châtelet

Nothing much has changed! The Métro station has the feel of a subterranean dungeon, a cavernous place with little to commend it except for its utilitarian use as a means to get from one place to another. Few people come to this place except to pass through it to get somewhere else.

Métro Châtelet Entrance – Place du Châtelet

The station is home to five Métro lines. Lines 7 and 11 run under the Place du Châtelet and the Quai de Gesvre, site of the original medieval river port of Paris, and lines 1, 4 and 14 are towards the Rue Saint-Denis and the Rue de Rivoli.

I found this potted history of the development of the Métro lines at Châtelet via Google and from my knowledge of the Paris Métro, it seems to be a good and accurate summary:

‘The station was opened on 6 August 1900, three weeks after trains began running on the original section of line 1 between Porte de Vincennes and Porte Maillot on 19 July 1900. The line 4 platforms were opened on 21 April 1908 as part of the original section of the line from Porte de Clignancourt to Châtelet. It was the southern terminus of line 4 until the opening of the connecting section of the line under the Seine to Raspail on 9 January 1910.

The line 7 platforms were opened on 16 April 1926 as part of the line’s extension from Palais Royal to Pont Marie with the name Pont Notre-Dame-Pont au Change. It had no direct connection with Châtelet. On 15 April 1934 a connecting corridor was opened to the platforms of lines 1 and 4 and the line 7 station was renamed. The line 11 platforms were opened near the line 7 platforms on 28 April 1935 as part of the original section of the line from Châtelet to Porte des Lilas.

On 9 December 1977 the Châtelet – Les Halles RER station was opened with a connecting corridor with a moving walkway to Châtelet. The line 14 platforms were opened near the line 1 and 4 platforms on 15 October 1998 as part of the original section of the line from Madeleine to Bibliothèque François Mitterrand. On 7 and 8 March 2009 the line 1 platforms were restored during the automation of line 1, including the installation of platform screen doors.’

I’ve passed through the Châtelet Métro station many times but I’ve never visited it as a place itself. The other day, I put that right. I went and explored all five of the Métro lines that connect there although I left the three RER lines for another day.

I recorded the sounds of all five Métro lines, together with sounds of the passengers and the musicians who are a delightful feature of this station. This is what I came up with:

Châtelet Métro Station – A Sound Portrait:

Line 1

Line 4

Line 7

The Moving Walkway

Line 11

Line 14

After spending an entire afternoon in the station I came away with some delicious sounds for my Paris sound archive, a snapshot of which you’ve heard here, but I still couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was in a subterranean dungeon.


For the Métro buffs who take an interest in these things, the trains in my sound piece appear in the following order:

Line 4, Line 11, Line 14, Line 7 and Line 1 … but then you knew that already!


Arènes de Lutèce

IT WAS JULIUS CAESAR who gave the ‘city of the Parisii’ tribe’ the name Lutetia in the first-century BC. The Roman settlement of Lutetia broadly corresponds to today’s 5th Arrondissement, it extended roughly from the Rue Mouffetard in the east to the Rue de Vaugirard in the west and from the Boulevard Saint-Germain to a little beyond the Montaigne Saint-Geneviève.

Like all Roman cities, Lutetia was adorned with porticoed buildings, a forum, a temple, private dwellings, public baths, an impressive aqueduct to supply the settlement’s water needs and an arena for sports and entertainment.

The arena – the Arènes de Lutèce – was built as an amphitheatre around 200 AD and it could accommodate around 15,000 people, almost twice the population of the then city. It was a little unusual in that as well as theatrical productions, animal fights and gladiatorial combats, its sunken location meant that it could also be filled with water to accommodate aquatic sports and entertainment. Great mock sea battles were fought here.

The Arènes de Lutèce as it probably looked to the Romans

It didn’t last though.  Lutetia was sacked by barbarian invasions and the Arènes de Lutèce fell into decay. The centre of the arena became a burial ground and the stones were pillaged to reinforce the city defences around the Île de la Cité.  The construction of the Philippe Auguste wall in the thirteenth-century marked its final disappearance. The Arènes de Lutèce was out of sight and out of mind save for the name given to a neighbourhood quartier, les Arènes.

And it remained that way until Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris in the mid nineteenth-century.  During the construction of the Rue Monge some of the surviving remains of the arena were discovered by Théodore Vaquer, one of the unsung heroes of Parisian conservation. Haussmann though was all about the future with little time for the past and so he pressed on. He had the site bulldozed and built an omnibus station.

 In the late nineteenth-century, further construction revealed more of the Arènes de Lutèce but by this time attitudes were changing. A strident public debate led by Victor Hugo and others got underway.  Hugo wrote an open letter in which he said:

“It is not possible that Paris, the city of the future, should renounce the living proof that it was a city of the past. The arena is an ancient mark of a great city. It is a unique monument. The municipal council which destroys it would in some manner destroy itself. Conserve it at any price.”

Two of the animal cages

The campaign was successful and funds were dedicated to restoring the arena and establishing it as a public space, which was opened in 1896. And so it remains today.

Sounds of the Arènes de Lutèce:

In today’s Arènes de Lutèce there are no sights or sounds of animal fights, gladiatorial contests or great sea battles – instead there are people sitting on green benches doing nothing in particular or enjoying picnics or games of Pétanque, all accompanied by the ever present children playing football – and the occasional bird scarer.

This arena was built as a place of entertainment … and so it continues today.


Au Bonheur des Dames

AU BONHEUR DES DAMES is a novel by Emile Zola set in the world of the department store in nineteenth-century Paris. It covers the period approximately from 1864 to 1869 and it’s the eleventh novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macqart series.

From Zola’s original manuscript for Au Bonheur des Dames

When Zola was writing Au Bonheur des Dames, department stores were not only a new concept, their approach to retail sales was nothing short of revolutionary, which I suppose is what sparked Zola’s interest. Today of course we take department stores and other mega retail outlets for granted.

Following on from a blog piece I published recently about l’Assommoir, a Zola novel set around the quartier de la Goutte d’Or , I thought it would be interesting to capture today’s soundscape of Zola’s setting for Au Bonheur des Dames.

The department store at the centre of Zola’s novel is called Au Bonheur des Dames (Ladies’ Delight or Ladies’ Paradise) and Zola modelled it on Aristide Boucicaut’s hugely successful, Au Bon Marché, which, by 1852, had become one of the largest stores in Paris and one of the first department stores in the world.

Aristide Boucicaut

Boucicaut had revolutionary ideas about retailing. Under the Ancien Régime the typical retail outlet was the boutique specialising in one variety of product with no fixed pricing – bargaining was the rule. Boucicaut changed all that.

The change that he brought to retailing included everything we take for granted today. He was the first to “pile it high and sell it cheap”, he introduced the selling of more than one variety of product under the same roof, fixed pricing, the price ticketing of individual items, free entry encouraging customers to browse at will, the clearance sale, and for his employees – commission on sales and participation in profits.

These revolutionary changes of course came at a price.

Au Bon Marché in 1910

In the novel we see Octave Mouret, the owner of Au Bonheur des Dames, aiming to overwhelm the senses of his female customers, forcing them to spend by bombarding them with an array of choices and by juxtaposing goods in enticing and intoxicating ways. Massive advertising, huge sales, home delivery, a system of refunds and novelties such as a reading room and a snack bar, further induce his female clientele to patronize his store in growing numbers. In the process, he drives smaller, speciality shops out of business.

At the start of the book, Au Bonheur des Dames occupies almost a whole city block but Mouret is not beyond using all his political wiles to expand even further and threaten the existence of all the neighbourhood shops.

Au Bon Marché – Gravure

Today, Au Bon Marché is owned by the luxury goods group, LVMH, and it occupies more than one city block with the department store sitting cheek by jowl with the food hall, La Grande Épicerie de Paris, across the street.

Inside Au Bon Marché

Sounds inside the department store:

Just like Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, Au Bon Marché aims to overwhelm the senses of its customers with an astonishing array of luxury brands juxtaposed in enticing and intoxicating ways.

Inside La Grande Épicerie de Paris

Sounds inside La Grande Épicerie de Paris:

Personally, I find the department store with its luxury brand boutiques and obscenely expensive prices not to my taste. But the food hall, La Grande Épicerie de Paris, is an absolute delight. With over 5,000 products from around the world they cater for every imaginable taste. If you can’t find it anywhere else, you’ll most likely find it here.

This year marks the 160th anniversary of Le Bon Marché.

In Au Bonheur des Dames, Zola tells the story of Denise Baudu, a 20-year-old woman from Valognes who comes to Paris with her brothers and begins working at the store as a saleswoman. We follow her progress amidst the many conflicts that spring from the struggles for advancement and the malicious infighting and gossip among the staff. But the novel is also about the symbols of capitalism, the rise of the modern city, class relations and, above all, the changes in consumer culture at the end of the nineteenth-century.

It’s fascinating to think that Emile Zola, with his characteristic eye for detail, must have walked through the vast expanse of Au Bon Marché collecting material for his novel just as I did collecting the sounds for this post. I wonder what he would make of the sights and sounds of Au Bon Marché today?

Reading Zola’s novel certainly adds an extra dimension to a visit to today’s Au Bon Marché. I thoroughly recommend it.




Rue de Ménilmontant

MÉNILMONTANT HAS EXISTED since the thirteenth-century. Then it was a hamlet with just a few houses on a hill with vines and fruit trees. Today, it’s part of the thriving alternative Paris.

It was annexed first by Belleville before the French Revolution and then, in 1860, by the city of Paris.

I find streets like the Rue de Ménilmontant fascinating, they are usually off the tourist trail and full of local colour.

On the surface, the street has rather a shabby and rundown look to it far removed from Baron Haussmann’s central Paris but this belies the real character of the place. Despite its appearance, the Rue de Ménilmontant and the surrounding area is a thriving centre of alternative Paris as artists and young professionals have moved in.

Although this street really comes to life at night, it’s not devoid of colour and activity in the daytime. On the day I went, I found and enjoyed a fascinating street market.

Sounds from the Rue de Ménilmontant:

I spend a lot of time walking the streets of Paris listening to and capturing everyday sounds not only from the glamorous but also from the ordinary streets; the sounds we often ignore but sounds which provide the sonic tapestry to our lives. I think it’s really important that these sounds are captured and preserved.


NON au traité d’austérité

THE SUMMER HOLIDAYS are over so now it must be the marching season, the time when the streets of Paris resound to the sights and sounds of protest.

I was in the Place de la Bastille on that memorable Sunday evening back in early May when the crowds celebrated as François Holland was swept into power as Président de la République. Since then his honeymoon as President has been a short one, his approval rating slumped to a low of 43 percent in one poll last week.  On Sunday, he faced his first major display of public anger as thousands of people gathered in the Place de la Nation to protest against the austerity plans contained in the EU fiscal pact or le traité sur la stabilité, la coordination et la gouvernance (TSCG) as it’s known here. A draft law concerning this budget discipline pact is being debated in the lower house of parliament this week and it’s expected to be approved by both houses of parliament.

I’ve never been known to miss a good street protest, so I went to along to record the sights and sounds.

According to the Front de Gauche who organised this manifestation, some sixty organisations took part mainly representing the far-left – the Parti Communiste, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, the Parti Ouvrier Indépendant, Attac, the CGT trades union and many others. Conspicuous by their absence were representatives of the Parti Socialiste, François Holland’s party, who now of course form the government. Estimates of the numbers attending vary wildly. The lowest estimate I’ve seen put the number at 40,000 but it could have been more. I arrived early as the crowd gathered in Place de la Nation and I spent the afternoon capturing the sights and sounds around me.

A high spot for me was when the very nice people at Radio France allowed me to take a picture inside their outside broadcast van. This may have been a diversion from the matter in hand but once a sound enthusiast, always a sound enthusiast and I never miss the opportunity to look at a Nagra sound recorder!

So here then is my record of the afternoon.

NON au traité d’austérité – Part One:

In my experience, the French are very mature when it comes to demonstrations like this. Although this crowd were clearly very passionate about the issue and, despite the very large numbers, everything was very good-natured and I saw no signs of trouble anywhere. The only moment of anxiety I had was when an ambulance arrived and tried to go down a road that was entirely blocked by demonstrators. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, the crowd separated and let the ambulance pass but several of them spilled over onto the pavement, including me, but I survived unscathed.

NON au traité d’austérité – Part Two:

On May 1st this year I attended and recorded a rally by the far-right Front National for this blog. On Sunday it was the turn of the far-left. Both events may have been poles apart politically but both took place free of trouble. I rather like living in a country where people of any hue can take to the streets and make their voices heard without wanton violence breaking out and where the privilege to protest unhindered sits comfortably alongside the will to do it responsibly.

And as for the traité d’austérité …. we shall see!