Paris. Wandering, with Zola, through Batignolles.

Place Clichy. Lunchtime at the barrière. In Paris the universal punctuation mark is coffee, for me, on this grey Wednesday, this is the semi-colon of my day as a flâneur, around the village that is/was Batignolles. It’s nearly lunchtime, but a good place, and time, to call a temporary halt. Unlike the Parisians I really don’t ‘do’ Lunch, I find it an intrusive, and unnecessary, meal which almost terminates the day., in mid-stride. But, in this city of ‘lunchtime’, when in Paris . . . et.c, et.c.

The morning began as three of us left the Line 13 train at Brochart. A middle-aged man, briefcase with broken handle tucked under his arm, a Muslim woman pushing an empty pram, surely she hadn’t left the unfortunate child hurtling towards Port d’Asniere and myself, were decanted onto the Avenue de Clichy. This is not a tourist destination. There are no crowds or African geegaw vendors here. This is the ‘Paris’ of Paris. Not the only Parisian Paris, of course, I could have easily been in Belleville, Villette or Gentilly but, I’m not, I’m on the old borderland of the villages of Batignolles and Monceaux. The fallow fields and woodland were raped long ago, in the eighteenth century, by quarrymen, and then re-populated by a railway engine works. But I am in no doubt that I am in the countryside. I have just stepped down a narrow passage into, well, into the countryside. This frontier is now drawn by the Cité des Fleurs. This is a, grandly-named, paved street, wide enough for one car, or should that be one carriage, and one pedestrian on each pavement, which today is totally, and unconcernedly, blocked by a wagon delivering replacement paving slabs. The four cars, who ignored the ‘Men at Work’ sign, sit patiently, in a Parisian sort of way, waiting for the delivery to end. Diplomacy and discussion are redundant here. Job to be done! Surely this is the city equivalent of the ever slow-moving, patience-testing, tractor? They, those of the non-working variety, must wait, and wait they do. But they do it with an air which hovers between resignation and arrogant affrontery.

It’s the houses that have drawn me down this 200 metre long street. They all lie behind walls, hedges and gates, some, though, are more determined to protect their privacy than others. Some have ascending staircases to their doors, double staircases in places. Most have ornate architectural features, a swag here, a finial there. A glory of wrought ironwork everywhere, adorning their luscious whiteness. These were the houses of the rich in 1850. They were middle class dwellings in the 1950s. They are now back in the hands of those for whom they were built, the cycle continues. There’s every ‘neo’ imaginable here, neoclassical to neobaroque to neogothic. Built to satisfy the whims of their ‘proprietaires’, just as long as those same ‘proprietaires’ agreed to plant three trees in their garden, and also display two cast iron urns. I know, I didn’t get that one either.

But, notwithstanding the delivery wagon, this is a tranquil and green place, it is a place of flowers. Paris, though, has a habit, if you have eyes which see beyond the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, of drawing you into its past. But here, (dare I say it?) the city has similarities with the good ol’ US of A. It has very little, some, but very little, evidence of its antiquity. For the US, with respect to the native Americans, it just hasn’t been around that long, but Paris had the archetypal town planner, Baron Haussmann, and Paris is still marching to his nineteenth century beat. On the Cité des Fleurs, alongside a gateway, is a garland of flowers, attached to a plaque. Here, in May 1944, the Resistance network ‘Plutus’ was raided by the Gestapo. Their primary task, in this house, was the forging of papers. Here, in the yard into which I’m looking, Colette Heilbronner was executed and, from here, six of her
co-Resistants were transported, to their deaths, in Germany. Here, they are still remembered. The surprise, for me, is that most of the names are Hebraic. This is practically two years after the notorious round-up of Jews, in the Vel d’Hiv, and there were still Jews, in 1944, in Paris, operating openly secretly. The lodge of ‘LE Guardien’ lies at the end of the street, bearing the rules and regulations. It seems unimportant that ‘LE Guardien’ is a woman. Similarities there with the new Mayor of Paris, Madame LE Maire. She is fighting hard to become LA Maire. Aargh, the vagaries of the gender of French nouns.

Retracing my steps, down the Cité, and across the traffic of the Avenue, onto the Rue des Moines, takes me from a verdant, village, suburb into the heart of the village. The shopping street. Here isn’t the rush of the motor car, here it is the bustle of footfall. People are not en route, they are there. The street is their target. Just an ordinary street, but with a cornucopia of fresh produce. The first five shops are an Italian delicatessen, a Greek deli, a mini-market, a North African grocery and a Chinese café. All are open to the street. A street full of parked cars. It’s August
on-street parking is free! There is a fromagerie, door closed but the smell, outside, is deliriously, gorgeously, cheesy. Cheese in abundance and cheese from Abondance. There are three boucheries and several fruit and veg. Emporia, all with their in-house, characterful, spieler. But wait. There’s something wrong here. I live in a Breton, rural idyll, and I shop at Super U. I buy what they provide, what they think is good for me. Here am I in the largest, most populous, city in France, on a street that groans with choice, in every culinary department. I can’t get this selection in Brittany, in fact, it seems to me, the supermarkets there are overseeing the end of French village culture. But French village culture is here, amongst the apartments and offices, and it is in rude , good health. Slightly dearer, I grant, but it’s there. The shopkeepers,wearing all manner of garish gear, from cowboy hats to fez, are calling the customers by their first names, and there are customers in every shop. The only things that you can’t buy here are miniature Eiffel Towers, ‘I love Paris’ T-shirts and Arc de Triomphe key rings. This ‘modern’ village concept is emphasised at the end of the street. On one side a pharmacy with a genuine 1900, wood and painted glass, frontage, but with an ultra-modern interior and, opposite, the ‘Batignolles Market’, a subterranean piece of Brueghalia. An extraordinary, and ordinary, place. It’s short of light down there, and some of the people descending the stairs, look a little dodgy and downtrodden, but it is a fully-functioning market, people are shopping, they are carrying bags, and, thankfully, not Super U bags.

The walk through Batignolles to Place de Clichy is through narrow streets, which, in no way inhibit the speed of either cars or motor scooters. And whose pavements provide little refuge from the impatient, urban, speedsters. The streets are lined by high apartment buildings, interspersed by the old, double-storey, remaining, village houses. This is, oddly, a great place for street Art. The narrow gable end of a house bears a 30 metre high tree, with a nesting rook perched aloft. On the floor, a partly obliterated stencil, something about ‘marriage and wives’, over-stenciled by someone else writing, ‘Bad stencilling is like shit on the pavement’. How discerning, that someone has had the time, and motivation, to over-stencil a stencil. On an adjacent wall, a huge, green, 3D, ear, with the legend ‘Audio Surveillance Zone’. This must be street art, a visual pun on ‘walls have ears’? Either that or Paris has become more surveillance conscious than ‘Big Brother London’.

The street, Rue Lemercier, is almost a six-storey canyon, with only the odd window box, and airing duvet, to break the cream monotony. Oh, and ‘Mme. Dupont’ checking her domain for unwanted intruders, from as far away as the neighbouring Rue Legendre, as she has done for centuries. No eye contact! But, then, to my left, a solid gate opens and a courier strides, carelessly, out. Before the door creaks it’s way closed, I’m in. I’ve seen it done on ‘Maigret’ and if an old, bemacked, pipe-smoker can do it, so can I. When I get through, I’m in a smaller version of the Cité des Fleurs. The street is paved, single lane, gated and with gardens full of trees. Probably, just like the Cité, the citizens were allowed their own design of houses, they merely had to guarantee that three trees would be planted in their front garden, I expected to be in a courtyard, but, in fact, I am in a 100m long, country lane. This is so well-disguised, and I wonder how many more of these gates lead onto wooded lanes? These are secrets that need to be kept, secrets that beguile, and attract.

Place Clichy beckons. En route a ‘boulangerie/patisserie’ with wooden framed windows and painted glass and a ‘cordonnerie’, again with wooden window frames and a ‘museum’ of ancient tools, and the cobbler sitting there actually using them! Two more painted gable ends and more stencils, this time of Dylan and Gandhi. I’m not convinced by stencilling, it isn’t graffiti, it lacks graffiti’s immediacy, and is carefully prepared and constructed ‘at home’ rather than ‘in situ’. Bit of a cheat? I think so. And there’s another. This time it’s a café, ‘Le Petit Poucet’. It can’t really mean ‘The Little Thumbscrew’? Can it? But it’s been distressed. Everything from the sign, to the tables has been distressed. This is like Holts’ Brewery, in Manchester. They are the only people who can open a new pub and make it look genuinely, grubby, homely and fifty years old, from Day One. Why do people take a perfectly good piece of furniture, hack it about, sand it down, paint it blue and then believe that it’s attractive? They’ve done it here, in yellow, to a café !

So, the Place and a coffee. In the historic café, Wepler’s? Non. Not at those prices, I only want a coffee. So, I’d better whisper this, I sit in the window of ‘Quicks’, and drink a perfectly acceptable cup, for less than 2€. There is only one other customer. An oldish woman, oh dear, I mean of ‘my age’. There are four employees one Chinese, one West Indian, one South American and one European, sitting enjoying a coffee, chattering away in French, before the lunchtime storm, sprawled across the bench seats, in the corner. It doesn’t seem right for a woman, of that age, to be eating a ‘burger, she’s out of place, out of time. She’s not even dressed properly for the activity, . She’s dressed . . . like a woman of 65 . . . ish. I wonder if she’s thinking the same thing about me, an awkwardly dressed man?

Outside Parislife continues. Over there four, besuited, and smart, Central Africans are trying to raise a crowd, for prayer. A North African man pushes a supermarket trolley which contains a small grill and oven. Hanging from the handlebar, a bag of sweet corn, to be roasted. So many memories, of the ‘Hot Chestnut Man’, outside Central Station, in Blackpool, come cascading back. No flick of the switch here, he’s waiting for the charcoal to come to temperature. This is proper street cuisine. But, just like the inappropriately dressed woman to my right, I can’t visualise people walking, eating a butter-dripping, uncontrollable, piece of maize, in a Parisian street. Perhaps his optimism is based on experience? I hope so. Two other North Africans are unloading a multi-coloured VW van, a throwback to ‘flower power’, now that is graffiti, proper sprayed graffiti, illegally parked graffiti, as well. All the boxes ticked. They are delivering fresh fruit and vegetables to some of the establishments round the Place, and under the Place, as he bumps a trolley, stacked twelve crates high, cautiously, and expertly, down into the bowels of the Metro. A display of strength and skill which, obviously, did not leave Paris with the closure of the huge marketworld at Les Halles. Emile Zola is, suddenly, there, with me. ‘Les Ventres de Paris’.(1) People do watch, with that curious, glancing , desire to see a disaster, and the lettuce, oranges, tomatoes et al, plummeting towards Line 13. He does not oblige. Girls with trilbys, and carrying rucksacks, pass him on the way up. Probably escaping Australians, come to see what civilisation looks like. Men with briefcases. Japanese with cameras. Me, with curiosity, at such a rich scene. The inescapable mobile phones clamped to walking ears. “Is it all so important?” I imagine it must be. The inevitable Pompier siren. The honking Renault. The irritating scooter. Traffic guided by common sense rather than white lines. The sounds of a city that isn’t, actually, in any guide book. But it is in the novels of the Rougon-Macquart, it is in Zola . . . and it’s still here.

Rue Lecluse stands round the corner, off the Boulevard Batignolles. This is not a village street. But this is where the village went. A Dublinstreet of wonderful doors and entrances. This is the story of Paris. In the nineteenth century when Baron Haussmann was planning his great boulevards and squares, his great and glorious townhouses, the tax-garotte that was the wall of the Farmers-General, still stood and, within it, the grand design was taking shape. But where did the working people of the city go, as their houses and streets disappeared. In fact they went, as with all great cities, east, towards Belleville and Villette, towards Menilmontant and Gentilly. The spaces of Batignolles and Ternes, of Autueil and Monceaux, in the north, became the hunting ground of speculators. The population of Batignolles rose by 103% between 1861 and 1896. Does this sound familiar to Anglo-Saxon ears? It should do. Land was bought, and held, ready for the right, profitable, price. Profits weren’t to be made in the building of working-class dwellings, for the displaced poor. Eventually, magnificent terraces went up, like the Rue Lecluse, for, if not the rich, the well-to-do. Speculators are not philanthropists, not social engineers, their interest is purely in the acquisition of money. Shedloads of it. Buy. Build. Rent. The creed of greed, sorry, investment. These houses have passed their best and are now multi-occupancy appartments, but they are a vibrant part of this village’s story.

My next punctuation mark, another comma, on this amble, is the park in Batignolles. But I must find my way there, through streets that were trodden by Zola. He is an ever-present spirit in this narrowness. It was here that he lived, for a while, at 23 Rue Truffaut, directly opposite the wash-house. All the experiences described in ‘L’Assomoir’ (2) could be seen from his appartment window. The initial fight that Gervaise Lantier had in the laundry, the smells and sounds that he evokes in the story, he experienced them here, in Batignolles, then set his novel in the nearby area of Barbes-Rochechouart! James Joyce said that he hoped that, if Dublin were to be destroyed tomorrow, it could be reconstructed from the pages of ‘Ulysses’, the same could be said of Paris and the books of Zola. The street is quiet, deserted, but is peopled by spectres of the past. They are here.

The park is a perfect example of the English, municipal park. There are neat flower beds, a lake, populated benches, statues and tall trees. The children’s playground is locked. The Orangerie contains one orange. The café is barred and shuttered and the roundabout silent. Austerity bites. But there is a Galllic twist. The people. They are not only Parisian, but the remnants of Empire. This is a relaxed multi-cultural place. People talk to each other. I just sit on a bench, in my understated , English, way, on a vacant one, of course. Within minutes I am joined by a doppelgänger of ‘Tiger’ Clemenceau, complete with cigarette (oh how I wished that it had been a ‘Gauloise’, but it wasn’t!) in the corner of his mouth and mobile ‘phone. He smiles and nods. ” ‘…jour’ “Isn’t it strange how you can tell the sex of the person receiving a call, by the voice and body language of the caller? “Marcel. She can’t see you!” He isn’t ‘phoning that woman on the other side of the Lake, is he? She’s on the ‘phone as well. I’m party to some clandestine meeting. I am. I’m sure of it.
Man-with-briefcase-and-‘Le Figaro’ sits between us. The spell is broken.

The end of my odyssey is in sight, along the Rue Boursault, the Pont de l’Europe and Gare St. Lazare. On a school another memorial, to Robert Louis Desmoret, and another bunch of fresh flowers. The 32 year old Robert was shot on this spot, outside the school, by the Nazis, on August 20th.1944. He had been part of a Resistance group which had attacked a garage requisitioned by the Wehrmacht. He was wounded here and died, the next day, in the Hôpital Bichot. The battle for Paris had begun on the 19th. August and lasted till the German garrison surrendered on the 25th. In only six days the Parisians reclaimed their city. But, as with Colette Heilbronner, the only reason I know what they did, is through research. To all passers-by these brave Parisians are just names on walls, memorial bouquets. They aren’t. They deserve more. Someone. Somewhere. Do something!

The Pont de l’Europe. I’m still not in the guide books, but this is the site of so much artistic endeavour. . . and achievement. The wonderful, evocative, Impressionistic, paintings of Gustave Caillebotte. (3) ‘That’, iconic, photograph by Cartier-Bresson, of the puddle-jumping businessman, ‘Derrière la Gare St. Lazare’. The paintings, inside the Gare, that you just wish had been painted by JMW Turner, but are by that French impressionist, Monet. And then, Emile Zola, again. The sordid, sexual, and violently, murderous events centred on the railway from Gare St.Lazare to Le Havre, in ‘La Bête Humaine’ (4). Behind me the huge trench that used to carry the railway into the Batignolles Tunnels. A sort of Parisian Kings Cross. A, seemingly endless, symphony of rails, overhead cables and trains. The tunnels were closed after an accident, in 1921, when two trains collided, in the that terrifying darkness, and burst into flames, killing 28 and injuring 74. There was an instant reaction and, in 1925, the tunnels, save for a short section, were gone, replaced by this gash through Batignolles.

In front of me, la Gare. The fourteen platforms of Zola’s day are now twenty seven. This is the second busiest station in Europe, carrying 450 000 passengers a day. The busiest? Well, the busiest is walking distance away, the Gare du Nord. Monet’s pictures of St. Lazare, (5) evoke light and steam, Zola’s writing, power and noise. Today all is quiet, calm, and electrical. The only intrusion being the ‘bing-bong’ announcer, and the odd Diesel engine revving up. But the crowds of travellers still throng, and mill about, heading for the same destinations as a century ago, Cherbourg, Rouen, Caen, Le Havre and Deauville. But, tucked away, at the edges, are the lines to Auteuil and other local destinations. Here lies the ghostly footprint of ‘Le Petit Ceinture’ the ‘Little Belt’, Paris’s forgotten railway. I must find out more about this ‘hidden gem’.

The almost deserted platform of Brochart station on the Metro was where I started, the bustling concourse of Gare St. Lazare is where I finish. Paris is a city which fascinates, away from the Champs Élysées, where it bores, in fact . . . No, I won’t go there!

(1) ‘Les Ventres de Paris’ is the third book in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and is based on the central market of Paris, Les Halles. The ‘Belly of Paris’ was written in 1873, with Florent Macquart as it’s principal character.
(2) ‘L’Assomoir’ is the seventh book in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and is centred in Barbes-Rochechouart. It was published in 1876 and tells the story of Gervaise Lantier (née Macquart) and her fight against grinding poverty.
(3) The painting ‘Pont de l’Europe by Gustave Caillebotte, painted in 1876, can be seen in the Musée du Petit Palais in Geneva. Many of his paintings can be viewed at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
(4) ‘La Bête Humaine’ is the seventeenth book in the Rougon Macquart series. It was written in 1889 and is a story of sex, greed, corruption and murder, based on the railway line from Gare St. Lazare, in Paris, to Le Havre. The main character, the engine driver, Jacques Lantier, is the son of Gervaise Lantier (L’Assomoir) and the brother of Etienne ( ‘Germinal’ ) and Claude ( ‘L’Oeuvre’ ) Lantier.
(5) Monet’s Gare St. Lazare series were painted in 1877 and can be seen in the Musée d’Orsay.


2 thoughts on “Paris. Wandering, with Zola, through Batignolles.

  1. Lovely — made me long to get on the train immediately and explore for myself. Looking forward to the illustrated version (maps and photos). More like this, please.

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