This will be the last of our journeys around les Sarziers looking at items which wound up here in diverse and unexpected ways, and actually it is simultaneously a walk along the rue Bréa, which has been our Paris base since the 1970s. This post is a round-up of objects that we rescued from demolition jobs or found abandoned as the neighbourhood changed and became gentrified. We operated like Autolycus, the ‘snapper up of unconsidered trifles’ salvaging an assortment of items. The flat is rented out now and the street has changed beyond measure but thinking about those objects has brought back many stories and memories.
When we first lived in Montparnasse our little street still retained the feeling of the not too distant past when it was a hub for artists, poets and writers in the 1930s and 40s. The neighbour in the flat below ours had been a good friend of Simone de Beauvoir’s mother – ‘what an ugly couple they were!’ she used to say of de Beauvoir and Sartre, and she referred to Jacques Lecoq, our revered theatre teacher as ‘le petit Jacques’. Wadja, the tiny Polish restaurant round the corner served soup at lunch time for the equivalent of 50cts and still had paintings on the walls which had been left as payment by impecunious artists.
At the rear our flat looks out onto several studios, once used by Modigliani, Gaugin, Mucha and the like and, on the other side overlooks what was still a famous artists’ supply shop. The business was established in the mid 19th Century in a neighbouring street and in 1910 Lucien Lefebvre and his wife Marie Foinet moved into these premises. They lived in the spacious accommodation above the shop and converted the coach yard into a workshop with a garden on the roof. They sold canvases, brushes, all types of artists’ supplies and were particularly well known for their paints, which they made themselves on the premises. Our flat overlooks the roof-top garden, where they kept large glass jars of linseed oil, presumably maturing for optimum use. They dealt with many well-known artists, including Giacometti, and the business passed through three generations. When we knew it Lucien’s grand daughter Josette, a somewhat forbidding character, presided over a vast, wood-panelled and entirely silent interior. You definitely needed to know what you were about if you penetrated the portals of that shop.
Lefebvre-Foinet closed in 1996 and we snapped up a pile of frames which had been left for collection by the éboueurs. It felt like a crime to allow so much craftsmanship and history to end up in the city’s garbage trucks. We have used them over time in various ways, sometimes for their original purpose but also to frame mirrors. This one was quite damaged and the moulding of one corner had fallen off. I challenged myself to make a latex mould and a plaster cast to restore it, which I then gilded to match the rest of the frame.
Pour la petite histoire, a hullaballoo broke out when the building was sold. It emerged that the official purchaser was acting as cover and, by a crafty sleight of hand the property was immediately transferred to Mc Donald’s, who wanted to open an outlet in the neighbourhood but were being fiercely resisted by the local inhabitants, unenthusiastic about delivery trucks, rubbish, noise and the smell. A legal challenge was mounted and the sale overturned. Instead the street level became a children’s bookshop and the upper floors were converted into two spacious and airy flats.
Our metro station Vavin is just now getting its second makeover since we have known it. Some stations had been renovated in the 60s by means of installing flashy cladding, and it was fascinating to discover, when this was removed, all the posters, information notices and advertisements which had been in place at the time. Vavin was not one of these. In the late 80s the classically beautiful white and blue tiles were cleaned and remade where necessary but the seating was updated.
The wooden benches were removed and replaced with characterless individual seats, partly in an attempt to discourage people from sleeping in the stations. At this time an elderly and rather distinguished lady took up residence every night in our staircase, leaving just before I did in the morning. If I came home late or left early, she would apologise and move aside, assuring me that she did not smoke and was not dangerous. Indeed she was entirely harmless and she did not want our help. She spent her days sitting in the nearby Luxembourg gardens or, if it was wet, in the metro. The nuns in the next street handed out food at lunch time – as they still do – and she survived reasonably well like that.
Anyway, back to the benches. Markus asked the workmen if he could take one, and, somewhat surprised they said oui, pourquoi pas? We set it up above the veg patch where there is a nice view and in some ways it is still fulfilling its original purpose. These benches are shallow and not very comfortable, since they were only intended for a few minutes’ rest whilst waiting for a train. So now when you take a break you quickly grow uncomfortable as you contemplate the weeds and very soon find yourself back at work in among the beans and tomatoes! It has also needed repainting several times in inauthentic green, it was deep maroon, and has lost a slat – these benches were never supposed to see the light of day and are consequently not very weather proof.
I have kept the phone directory for the rue Bréa from 1978 which helps me remember all the different businesses which used to thrive in the street. It’s only about 150 metres long but it had everything: all the food shops you would expect, vegetables and fruit, a cheese shop, fishmonger, charcuterie, two butchers, bakers and so on but also a (rather alarming) tripe shop, a florist, a beauty salon, hairdresser’s and perfumery, ironmonger’s, a home appliance store, a dog grooming salon and a wonderful haberdasher’s. There was an insurance agent, a cobbler, a launderette, several cafés and restaurants, a shop selling pottery and knick-nacks and an extraordinary alimentation, its shelves stocked with packets and boxes, but where nothing was for sale – all of them being empty. We never got to the bottom of that one!
There was a venerable shoe shop on one corner which sold sturdy footwear and bomb-proof sandals. It advertised itself as catering for pieds sensibles and was much patronised by nuns. When it closed down (in its most recent incarnation it is a Starbucks) we acquired a considerable number of very large mirrors. We were engaged at the time in a project to open a dance studio with a choreographer friend which subsequently came to nothing and most of the mirrors ended up at les Sarziers. They aren’t very photogenic though and anyway you know what mirrors look like, so let’s move on!
Around another corner was a beautiful, dingy, brown-painted tailor’s shop called Joseph. It too closed down in the early 90’s and here we were a little more conventional. Venturing inside for the first time we asked if we could buy two of the rose light fittings and were very pleased to acquire them. There were many other lovely things, as the shop had not been modernised since the 1940s but after our visit the windows were covered over with brown paper, to discourage further enquiries. This sort of item is, or used to be, easy to find in a brocante, but our lamps our special to us because of where they came from.
This next item is a bit of cheat but it connects with a nice story. Dominique, the oldest Russian restaurant in Paris, was located half way up the street. All red plush and gilt, the dimly lit interior was to me the very image of Tsarist Mother Russia. The prices were way beyond our means but we did pop in sometimes for a bottle of red wine to take away when all the shops were shut. Every year at Orthodox Easter a special dessert would appear in the window. It is called a Pashka and our new downstairs neighbour not only bought one, but boldly asked for the recipe. I now make it most years although I have substituted a flower pot for the traditional cardboard mould. I never could get the hang of the strange four-sided pyramid shape with flattened top that the chef at Dominque made every Easter.
There was still a large and very elderly Russian émigré population in Montparnasse. One such lady lived in a ground floor flat in our courtyard. She was a ferocious and impoverished intellectual who existed in conditions of considerable squalor of which she was entirely unaware. For a number of years, our neighbours heroically brought her soup and made sure that she didn’t freeze to death, receiving in return nothing but criticism and grumbles: that’s just how she was. One summer we all decided to hold a dinner in the courtyard for everyone in our little building. A younger and more conventional Russian lady had recently rented a flat and was of course invited. Mme Mahn, wearing a very grubby silk blouse, eyed her suspiciously as she told us her life history, mentioning her noble ancestry. ‘Ah!’ she remarked icily, ‘vous êtes duchesse; moi, je suis princesse!’ There is no answer to that!
One item did not make it here, but its story deserves to be told. There were several nightclubs in the immediate area, somewhat fallen on hard times and but a shadow of their former selves. At the top of our street was the Kit Kat Club, its name written out in a flourish of angular pink neon letters. Outside, rain or shine, stood Nicole, conservatively dressed in a dull green coat and usually clutching a couple of shopping bags, her poodle Fifi sitting at her feet. Now middle aged, she bore very little resemblance to the photos showing her, scantily clad in her heyday, which were still displayed in the darkened club windows behind her. She would mutter, not without humour, as we passed: “Ah les amoureux, c’est mauvais pour le travail!” and indeed she used to disappear, regularly and accompanied, into her small flat above the Montparnos restaurant just across the street. She and Fifi dined there every evening, the dog sitting on a chair beside her. She ate frugally, since she was supporting two brothers, one of whom was in prison in Marseille. She once memorably exclaimed to the restaurant owner “I’m fed up with working for others!” (Her language was actually a little more explicit, but I’m sparing your blushes). When the Kit Kat closed its doors for the last time and the demolition squad moved in Markus salvaged the neon letters with the vague idea of one day using them in a show, although that never happened and in the end we disposed of them. The Montparnos is still a restaurant although Nicole would not recognise it. She too is long gone and the club has become an Irish pub.
And finally, a country mouse who came to town!
There were so many derelict farms to explore when we were first here. Almost invariably they were just empty shells but occasionally a few broken and abandoned items seemed worth salvaging and the battered remnants of a grandiose gilt frame was one of those. I cleaned it up and did what I could to recreate the missing sections and re-gild it but it was a hopeless task. When we redecorated the sitting room in Paris I decided to make what I think of as an inside joke. Rather than a conventional trumeau or mantle mirror, we made a frame out of skirting boards which I painted in gilder’s red size, adding a sliver of gilt to the inner edge and arranging the fragments of the Ardèche mirror around it. I like to imagine that they are having a little laugh at finding themselves in Montparnasse, that most emblematic artists’ quartier of Paris.