Unlikely heaven in the 10th Arrondissement

Day 11 of Camp Nanowrimo and I’m back in 1998 when my belly was flat and my hubby had hair. The second half of our honeymoon in Paris saw us sweltering in the polluted Summer city after a month in Italy.

Gare de l’Est is one of the enormous train stations you can see from Montmartre. Gare du Nord is the big daddy, while Gare de l’Est sits about a mile away as though lying in wait. It squats there, spreading it’s fingers to the east, reaching out to Germany and beyond, surrounded by busy streets, street art and people, so many people. It wasn’t always gritty and urban. My kingdom for a time machine.

East Railway Station. Paris (10th arrondissement), circa 1890

Just down the road, our tiny apartment there in 1998, home for a few weeks in the hot, smoky city that summer. Our tiny room was like a haven of calm in that frenetic neighbourhood in a Paris that was choking almost to death. The Summer air outside was close and unpleasant but inside our little room with the rosebud fabric stretched across the thin walls the air seemed to filter through the jasmine vine that climbed the western facing wall of the building. We could hide away in that room and still feel like we were in Paris, looking through the wrought-iron balustrade to the tiny lane behind. Once a fine old apartment, now a bit of a rabbit warren of rooms to rent; Madame Flo had created an income for herself upon the death of her parents. Those old Haussmannian buildings were well built but when people divide up the big old rooms into smaller spaces and rent them out to travellers (tourists?) the walls are often strictly for visual privacy. Honey-mooners, beware.

not a jasmine vine, but you get the picture…

I found Madame Flo’s simple business card in my trunk of travel memories. White card, her essential information stamped on one side. It was strictly to be given out only to those who would respect her home, we were told. This was how people advertised their businesses in the days before Tripadvisor and Airbnb. It was strictly cash only and we were strongly encouraged to keep to ourselves when it came to the neighbours. I got the feeling that Madame Flo was a bit of a renegade and wasn’t surprised to discover that she, like Phillippe, had been out on the streets, marching in ’68, although Phillippe had been a young university student, while Madame Flo would have been much older. She had an opinion on everything, political or otherwise, sitting all day watching talking heads on television and reading the newspaper from cover to cover. Phillippe had softened with age and struggle, while Madame considered herself still a soixantehuitard although she apparently never left the flat anymore. { For those playing along at home, that’s someone who took part in, or otherwise supported, the civil unrest in France in May 1968, characterised by student protests and widespread strikes; (loosely), a fierce social activist or protester.}

The streets surrounding our little haven were unlike anything we had seen growing up in glorified country towns as we did. Originally a garment and textile district, every second shop was full of bright bolts of fabric. Back home I worked in fashion and I was thrilled to see rack after rack of clothes loaded onto waiting lorries (the ever present diesel fumes.) Every other shop was a hair salon it seemed, each with its own spruiker keen to get you through their door. They didn’t bother much with hubby, with his short hair {I was worried he would never recover from the shortest hair-cut he had ever had, courtesy of the rugby-mad barber in Padua, Italy. “Australian? David Campese! He crowed,” right before he pretty much shaved my husband’s head.} In the busy streets around our neighbourhood, the touters were keen to get me through the door with my long unkempt mop of auburn hair, but I was really not interested in corn-rows or some other complicated up-do.

Each day we rose late, as Paris does in general, and made our way into the historic centre. There wasn’t much to hold our interest out in the 10th but it was a great base from which to explore the city, making our way from Montmartre to Montparnasse and everything in between. Unlike those first few weeks after arriving in April when we just wafted around town, this time we climbed the towers, visited the museums and took day trips out to Chartres and Giverny.

The stone city gate on rue Faubourg Saint-Martin took us a little by surprise. You have to remember that this was in the days before you could take a virtual walk around Paris, or anywhere almost, on earth, via the magic of Google Maps. Even from far-flung Australia, we had seen images of the grand arch at the head of the Champs Elysees, but we had no idea there were these smaller and much older arches dotted around Paris, the last vestiges of the fortifications that once circled the city. Twenty years ago, to me, the Porte Saint Martin was a grimy poor cousin of the Arc de Triomphe. It definitely wasn’t love at first sight. Then I found out that it was built in 1674 to replace a medieval gate in the city walls built by Charles V. {It was restored in 1988 but already in need of a good wash 10 years later.} After Madame Flo told us about it’s long service to the people of the 10th, which I thought was a touch melodramatic, we walked past it each day with renewed interest. Sure it was dirty and a lot smaller than its grand cousin further west but what it lacked in style it made up for in historical significance.

One afternoon we were walking back from Gare du Nord and our street, Rue du Château d’Eau was barricaded, lights flashing on haphazardly parked emergency vehicles. We usually used the back entrance when we could, picking up a few items from the tiny, over-priced supermarché in the laneway rather than braving the enormous Carrefour over between the two train stations. I noticed a lump on the sidewalk; something under a tarpauline. I grabbed hubby’s elbow and steered him away. Maybe we would go to Carrefour after all. Madame Flo told us later that someone had been stabbed in the street. “It’s okay, it was his friend,” she said. We decided later that this was her way of saying it wasn’t just a random stabbing or a robbery gone wrong, we shouldn’t worry about walking around the area, but perhaps refrain from fraternising with the locals or buying drugs.

Stabbing aside, I felt safe walking back each night to our digs. I’m not sure I would now, but then we were young, 10 feet tall and bullet-proof. We were attracted by the nightlife in the Marais, choosing a different cafe each evening which at some magical appointed time, seemed to become clubs, the clientele would spill out onto the street, holding drinks and each other. The weather was sultry and I think everyone in Paris had resigned themselves to the ever-present pollution and were just getting on with it. It felt as though we were watching a show, smiling and swaying to the music but always feeling separate from it all. I liked to think then if we’d stayed a little longer we might have felt welcomed, found a regular spot.

Despite the heat and the terrible conditions, The French Open tennis was on, out at RolandGarros but for the life of me I cannot think why we didn’t go. A few years later we were at Wimbledon, a year after that The Australian Open. Oh well, we will just have to go back.