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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
14: A balcony on Paradis

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

Paul au pays des Impressionists

When Camille Pissarro arrived in Paris, one of his first stops was the building that is now 58, rue de Paradis and then housed the atelier of Camille Corot, pre-cursor of the Impressionists in 'plein air' painting, refraction, depicting the wind through the movement of leaves, and color values, this last of which he imparted directly on Pissarro (also giving lessons to Berthe Morisot). When I moved into 49, rue de Paradis, on November 28, 2001, I didn't realize that my favorite painter had worked and studied right across the street until I saw the brown metal 'monument of Paris' placard in front of the building, complete with a drawing of the older artist in his tell-tale smock and beret, posed before an easel holding a palette in one hand and a pinceau in the other.

The 'petite' balcony at 49, rue de Paradis, where the cats and I settled in late November 2001. I turned the middle window (closest at left) into a 'cat window,' fencing the opening over so I could leave the window open without them escaping. Across the street, at right, the building with the bright sun swathe on its corner used to house the atelier of Camille Corot, where he gave lessons to Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot. Closest street at right is the rue Poissonniere, followed by the rues Papillon and Bleue. Photo courtesy and ©Christine Chen.

If Pissarro, through his tableaux, had played his part in calling me to Paris, this was no longer Pissarro's city. Heading left outside my door and taking the next left down the rue Poissonniere got me to the Grands Boulevards, where Pissarro had painted "The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning" from a window in the Hotel Russe. Now the boulevards had devolved into a congested tourist thoroughfare. The 'tant de choses a voir' (so many things to see) that Yves Montand had celebrated in "Les Grands Boulevards" were reduced to discount electronics and clothing stores and candy stands, only a few scattered brown kiosks and WCs of similar cylindrical form recalling the kiosks in the forefront of the Pissarro painting. If on a winter morning you squinted and looked up into the cloud-dappled horizon, blocking out the street from your vision, you might at least see what Pissarro saw in the sky.

If I veered in other directions, I had more luck finding the past. Crossing the rue Poissonniere, the arrondissement changed from the 10th to the 9th and the rue de Paradis became the rue Bleue. If I turned left before I hit Lafayette, I'd eventually find the Folies Bergere, where my compatriot Josephine Baker first dazzled 'le tout Paris' in the 1920s. (Located in a neighborhood of Jewish groceries, bookstores, and restaurants; I sighed when, after I'd chosen my new home, I looked at the map and noticed a big Star of David on it, indicating the presence of a synagogue; even in a city where Jews are invisible, an internal homing device had somehow brought me here.) If instead of taking the rue Bleue from the corner of Poissonniere I took a diagonal right onto the rue Papillon (butterfly), after a block it hit the rue Lafayette ("I am here!") and the parc Montholon, guarded by a tin replica of DeGaulle's famous "Parisians! France may have lost a battle but it has not lost the war" sign and a monument to workers consisting of an alabaster statue of several tantalizing buxom Belle Epoch women. If I made a sharp left on Lafayette, I'd eventually get to the Palais Garnier opera house, where I planned on spending lots of time reviewing the Paris Opera Ballet, whose most glorious star, Marie Taglioni, had once choreographed a ballet also called "Le Papillon," whose star, Emma Livry, was destined to live the brief life of one, perishing, not long after "Le Papillon" premiered, after her tutu caught fire while she was rehearsing another ballet. (Covering Livry's funeral procession in 1863 for Le Moniteur, Theophile Gauthier, among many other things perhaps the world's first dance critic, would write: "She resembled so much the butterfly; like him, her wings were burned in the flame, and, as if they wanted to escort the convoy of a sister, two white butterflies flew without rest above the white coffin during the trajectory from the church to the cemetery. This detail that the Greeks would see as a poetic symbol was remarked upon by thousands of people, because an immense crowd accompanied her funeral cart. On the simple tomb of the young dancer, what epitaph to write, if not that found by a poet of the Anthology for an Emma Livry of the Antiquite: 'Oh earth, be light on me; I weighed so little on you!'" Sounds better in the original French: "O terre, sois-moi legere ; j'ai si peu pese sur toi!")

Left: The view down the rue Lafayette near its intersection with the rues Bleue, Papillon, and Lamartine, as well as the parc Montholon, and towards the Palais Garnier opera house. Right: The view from my balcony on the rue de Paradis heading the opposite direction, towards the rue St. Denis, the Boulevard Magenta, and eventually the Gare du Nord, the Gare de l'Est, and the Canal St. Martin. Photos courtesy and ©Christine Chen.

If instead of heading down Lafayette towards the opera house I took the street right next to it that veers off in a right diagonal from the parc Montholon, the rue Lamartine, I'd first pass a 19th-century Portuguese synagogue (after the Algerians, the Portuguese make up the single largest immigrant community in France), then eventually the flat I'd sublet at no. 33, home to Sabine and, much earlier, Gauthier's partner in letters and opium Baudelaire. (Their contemporary Lamartine was himself both a poet and a politician, essential to the founding of the second republic). At the corner of the rue des Martyrs and Lamartine, I could continue more or less straight along the rue St. Lazaire until it came to the train station of the same name immortalized by Zola in his novel "The Human Beast" and by his friend Monet in several tableaux capturing the mystical steam being coughed up by the new locomotive 'beasts' that fascinated both as a heady sign of progress. After that I could continue to a little park where Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were initially interred, pique-niqueing with a steaming roasted garlic stuffed chicken I'd picked up in a rotisserie near Martyrs arrosed by surreptitiously sipped vin rouge, a pique-nique recalling that of Zola's doomed lovers in a seedy room for train workers above the station as they paused in a day of love-making and murderous plot-hatching against the girl's husband.

Or... I could instead take a sharp right at the corner of Lamartine and Martyrs, heading up Martyrs to the Blvds de Rouchechouart - Clichy, Sacre Coeur becoming visible towards the top of Martyrs. If I turned right, following Rouchechouart past the rue Barbes until it became the Blvd La Chapelle, on Wednesdays and Saturdays I'd find the outdoor Arab market, so called because of the origin of most of the fruit and vegetable venders minding it. If you don't mind crowds -- by 10 on Saturday it's packed like a slow-moving ocean of sardines -- it offers some of the cheapest prices in town for everything from string beans to dates and bunches of mint at 30 centimes, plus an atmosphere like a souk, with the singing and shouting vendors making their white French counterparts seem meek by comparison. I liked to buy hot fresh flat bread lathered with spicy peppers and onions from one of the more attractive kerchiefed women selling them out of shopping carts at the corner of Barbes for $1.50 a pop. (The Metro Barbes also acts as a catalyst in Montand's debut film, Marcel Carne's "Les portes de la nuit," when it's nightly closure forces his character to spend an enchanted night in the bowels of Montmartre.)

Returning yet again to the corner of Lamartine and Martyrs, also intersecting them at that corner is the rue Notre Dame de Lorette, named after the church that's there, and which heads uphill like Martyrs towards Rouchechouart-Clichy but veers slightly to the left. En route before reaching the boulevard you might pass the home of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the gated alley where his son Jean Renoir later held court, another atelier of Toulouse-Lautrec, and the Square Hector Berlioz or, as it was known when Vuillard painted and aggrandized it from the window of the apartment he shared with his mother above it, the Place Vintmille. (How disappointed I was to discover that the square was nowhere near as vast as Vuillard made it seem, its small surface covered in astroturf.) Cross Rouchechouart - Clichy to the rue Lepic and you'll find all things Amelie as well as the flat Van Gogh shared with his brother Theo.

Re-commencing at my flat at 49, rue de Paradis: If I headed right -- the opposite direction from Lafayette -- following the rue de Paradis, I'd first come to the rue St. Denis and a shopping district dominated by Pakistani, Indian, and Sri-Lankan grocery stores, take-out joints, and restaurants. Crossing St. Denis, the rue de Paradis becomes the rue Fidelite, in short order interrupted by the dismal Boulevard Magenta. Cross that and keep going in the same direction and you'll eventually find the Canal St. Martin. It was catching a glance of the canal in an outdoor viewing of Carne's classic "Hotel du nord" in a park across the canal from the actual hotel that decided me to look in the 10th for the Paris past I hoped to live today, as Malcolm McLaren might put it. (Never mind that at the time I was looking, the canal had been drained for cleaning.) Now I had found my 'coin de Paradis' on the rue de Paradis, which would become home to me and my little feline family of Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey for the next six years....

"It has a small balcony," the proprietor, Helene Valoire, told me when I called her to set up a RDV. But the only thing that was small about this balcony was its narrow depth, I discovered when I arrived and looked up at the 5th floor. (The largest balconies in Hausmanian buildings are typically on the 5th and 4th floors.) The two mahogony doors of the building's entrance, high and wide enough to accommodate horses (as it was designed to be), were flanked by brass serpents turning green. At the top of the stairs but one (a sixth floor housed former servant quarters converted into apartments usually occupied by students and young workers; you had to be young not to expire from the climb), a shaky door opened to the apartment's narrow entree whose floor, on the day I saw it, was dirt, as was that of the salle de bain behind the second door on the right (the first opened to the WC), directly facing the small kitchen, also with its own doorway. (The Napoleonic Civil Code decrees that there must be two doors between the bathroom and the kitchen. I once helped move an American friend's daughter into an apartment in which the two doors were right against each other.) Next was the entrance to the large main room, which ran the length of the apartment. Parallel to the entrance a tiny opening also looked out from the kitchen to the main room; it would become the perch for the cat food.

If I was getting to see the place before it went on the market, it was because it was not quite good to go yet. Mme Valoire had been planning to sell it, but after learning the building itself had major foundation problems, had decided to put that off.

"Why does the floor slant?" I asked her; the rake made it look like a villain's lair straight out of the old "Batman" t.v. series. "Oh," she said, laughing, "don't worry, it's normal. All the buildings in the quartier are like this." Then, pointing to the sheet of glistening white reflective mylar a foot above my head which covered the whole ceiling, I asked, "What's that for?" "It's because you don't want to see what's above it. It's not very nice."

The French are very concerned with what is 'proper,' in both manners and living arrangements, so Mme Valoire would have preferred that I wait another month until the place was really ready to be occupied. When I pleaded that I didn't have any place else to go, she let me move in early but said she would not charge me rent the first month. For the first month, I'd have to take my showers in the kitchen sink as the tub wasn't even installed in the bathroom, which she was having re-done with white Italian tiles. (My French neighbors would later marvel that my bathroom was as big as their kitchen and my kitchen as small as their bathroom.) At that point -- December 2001, when the imminent Euro was worth 11 cents less than the dollar -- the apartment was half the cost (in US $) and twice the size (42 meters squared not counting the balcony) of the Greenwich Village apartment I'd just left -- about $570/month. The windows were also being replaced and the balcony re-soldered. Consequently, when I moved in with the cats, my new home was already occupied, by a half-dozen workers presided over by a jovial giant of a plumber. They'd arrive every day and change into their work coveralls in my living room (the large main piece). I loved the bonhomie of having the workers there; it made the place festive. Sometimes I'd even wave to the workers on my balcony as I returned home, and they'd wave back. Every morning I'd offer them coffee when they arrived, which they thought was funny but which they accepted with pleasure.

The first day that I had to leave the apartment with the workers still there, I taped a note on the middle French window asking them to please keep the windows shut so the cats couldn't escape, signing it, "Le locuteur," when I should have written "le locataire," or the tenant. Marc, my new friend who'd sublet me the place on the Square Albin Cachot with the catastrophic plumbing, cracked up when he saw this. "You wrote, 'He who speaks.'"

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