Paris Day 1
I was lucky to be staying near the Beaubourg—well-kept, washed and painted. Looking out my window this morning, I saw the maintenance going on and the streets being scrubbed down…cleanliness is a form of aesthetics and helps keep Paris one of the most tourist visited cities in the world.
The day got off to a slow start but eventually we headed towards the 1st arrondissement. Because of her photogenic lifestyle, Coco Chanel’s house on 31 Rue Cambon was on my list of things to see.
Here she opened her first boutique in 1910 and sold hats before designing dresses. Coco actually lived at the Ritz Hotel but worked and entertained at Rue Cambon where she sprayed the place with Chanel No. 5 everytime she entered. The famous faceted mirrored staircase designed by Coco connected all four levels of the building. It was said she conceived the staircase so that while standing on one floor she could see what was happening on the others.
I wonder if Coco had been inspired by Duchamp’s 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (inspired by Muybridge’s photo sequence Woman Walking Downstairs).
We then went to another Chanel location in between La Madeleine and Place Vendôme where a very désagréable doorman provoked our desire to change location. There was nothing elegant about his behavior. Furthermore, Coco’s 1st arrondissement is majestic but condescending. So we went towards Belleville.
Napoleon III, Napoleon’s nephew and the first President of France to be elected by popular vote, wanted a modern and imperial Paris. So, with the help of Baron Haussmann, instigated an urban revolution. The tearing down of the old to construct the new meant that many of the poorer classes had to leave Paris and find new lodgings on the city’s outskirts. Thus many headed towards Belleville.
Belleville and Ménilmontant were once independent wine-making villages where Parisians would spend Sundays at the guinguettes dancing and drinking tax-free wine. Renoir captured the spirit of these guinguettes in his “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (1880).
Famous French singer Edith Piaf was born, legend has it, in a doorway at Ménilmontant (72 rue de Belleville). Edith’s mother was a street singer and part-time prostitute whereas her father was a Moroccan acrobat. Edith spent much of her childhood singing in the streets with her father. It was their only source of income. And the way Edith learned to sing.
When Edith was about 5 years old, she went blind but the prostitutes who worked for her grandmother collected money to sent her on a pilgrimage honoring St. Térèse of Lisieux. Edith regained her sight and became a devotee of St. Térèse for the rest of her life.
In 1935 Edith was discovered in Pigalle by the owner of a nightclub, Louis Leplée. It was because of him that Edith became famous.
Not far from the Lachaise cemetery where she’s buried is the privately owned Edith Piaf Museum ( 5, rue Crespin du Gast) full of memorabilia—clothing, shoes, letters, photos, and even an image of St. Térèse of Lisieux.
Daniel Pennac’s books based in Belleville made the neighborhood seem magical and full of intrigue and pathos. As opposed to the Latin Quartier and Saint Germain where you can buy only clothes and shoes, says Pennac, “Belleville remains a living district, not fossilized by commerce.”
Towards A Photogenic Lifestyle Observation: for years Belleville was shunned and avoided by the mainstream. Then Pennac‘s books transformed Belleville into a watercolor. Shabby became chic and the dreary became dynamic.
I would like to write about my daily life with the same spirit Pennac wrote about Belleville. Better yet, I would like to give my diary to a talented writer to see if, using description and editing, he could turn my life into a bestseller. Better yet, I would like to learn how to do it myself.