From early adolescence Paris had always shone out as a beacon of Bohemian freedom and as soon as my Accountancy exams were out of the way I sought and found employment in the City of Light. The Paris of 1970 was a very different town to the present. Mayor Chirac had yet to order the cleaning of the city’s monuments and buildings and Notre Dame was still partially soot laden. The Folies Bergère and the Concert Mayol were still open for business, the market of Les Halles was still in full swing and the Boulevard de Clichy had not yet been turned into a parking lot for coaches from Dusseldorf. On weekend visits to a largely deserted Louvre museum you would have to ask an attendant to switch on the lights. The Marché au Puces at the Porte de Clignancourt and the bouquinistes along the banks of the Seine had not yet been hoovered clean of every worthwhile collectible; a handful of Parisian chefs led by Raymond Oliver were resisting the assault of Nouvelle Cuisine; the globalisation of Ladurée macaroons was not even a twinkle in the proprietor’s eye. Louis Vuitton was just a luggage shop. Was it a better town then? Perhaps. Certainly the marketing of the city as a product and its Disneyfication had not begun in earnest. There were still a few magical years before the girls of St Denis were replaced by pots of geraniums, before the poor were forced out into soul-less suburbs, when butchers still lived with their families over their shops and many quartiers still contained a healthy mix of all levels of society. Perhaps, unless your Hanoi suburb was being carpet-bombed, everywhere, in some respects, was better then. Now I swing between moods of nostalgia, staring into a pool of red wine and listening to the songs of Juliette Greco and Yves Montand and periods when I cannot bear to hear the name of Paris mentioned for the pain of having left it.
My employer was kind enough to put me up at the Hotel de Londres in the Rue Saint Dominique, agreeing to meet the cost of the accommodation for a period of two weeks, during which time I was expected to find myself an apartment. After a brief search I settled on a small “deux pieces” under the eaves of an “immeuble de moyen standing” at 142 Avenue de Versailles. Situated near the entrance to the Exelmans Metro, I was a mere five stops from Alma Marceau, the nearest station to Ernst & Young’s office in the Avenue Montaigne. The building was a fine example of the work of Hector Guimard and naturally attracted many enthusiasts of his flamboyant style of art nouveau, including the over-keen, who would occasionally remove the brass knobs from the apartment doors and saw off parts of the wooden banisters for their collections.
Like all new tenants in a Parisian apartment building, my first responsibility was to register my presence with the concierge. History had already endowed the profession of concierge with a bad name. Guardians of their tenants’ morals, police informers, inquisitive, smiling only at Christmas time in anticipation of a bonus for having protected you for the past twelve months from dirty staircases, ineffectual heating, hawkers, immoral company and rowdy neighbours. It was therefore with trembling hand that I knocked on the door of the loge, which was opened, not by some old harridan, but by a short, plump woman with sad brown eyes that crinkled easily with laughter. I made my introduction, ending it with “Madame….” and trailing off to allow her to give me her name. “Solange” she said, “please call me Solange”.
Solanges do not model for Balmain. They are not the wives of Deputées or steel barons or pretenders to the French throne. Solange is the name of poorer girls from the provinces, of sad heroines in the novels of Emile Zola. Solanges are barmaids and the wives of épiciers. Solanges were concierges long before the Portuguese began to monopolise the profession in the 1970s. According to the folklore of the city, concierges are repellent in their loges, smelling of cabbage, moralistic, suspicious and racist. Solange was none of these. Solange helped me through those early days in Paris, directing me to the best stalls at the weekly market at the Porte de Versailles, explaining how to pick out the sweetest Charentais melons and test the maturity of Camembert, dropping off my shoes at the menders and finding me a plumber in the month of August. One day she invited me to dinner and that same evening I entered her tiny loge and met her husband Jean-Marie and their son, Richard. I felt humbled and amazed. The loge consisted of a small kitchen/dining area, a single bedroom and bathroom. Richard, in his mid-twenties, slept on the kitchen floor.
That was the first of many evenings in Solange’s loge. Dinner was often followed by a game of chess with Jean-Marie. Between moves I learned that the families of both Solange and Jean-Marie were from Charleville-Mezieres, a town on the river Meuse where it snakes through the thickly forested Ardennes mountain range that straddles both Southern Belgium and Northern France. I also learned that Richard was the son of a Polish conscript in the occupying German army. Despised, ostracised by the people of Charleville as a collaborator after the Germans finally retreated behind their own frontiers, Solange was saved by Jean-Marie who married her and took in Richard as his own. But Jean-Marie’s own family turned against him and the family sought the oblivion of Paris where Jean-Marie hid each day inside the blue overalls of the French ouvrier, standing at a lathe in some suburban factory. A well-read communist, he loved to talk about the trade union movement and of his admiration for Orwell and Steinbeck as he paused over his chess pieces. Later he would complain of headaches and our games became fewer and fewer until one day he collapsed in the street, was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died shortly afterwards. But not before he had given me a splendid book on Michelangelo – “pour t’encourager”. I went to the funeral and to watch Jean-Marie buried in the dismal cemetery of Montrouge. There, among the few sad mourners and the bouquets of chrysanthemums was the open coffin and the first dead person I had ever laid eyes upon.
The time came for me to move. Not far, just across the river where the relocation of the old Citroën factory was turning the 15th arrondissement into the new urban paradise. The luxurious new Hotel Nikko was going up on the banks of the Seine and there was a modern shopping mall with cinema complex near the Pont Mirabeau. I had found an apartment in a modern 4 storey building at 6 Rue des Bergers. It was very different from the Guimard building in the Avenue de Versailles. Spacious and modern it came with white Scandinavian furniture that I was obliged to buy, a condition of my acquiring the lease from a Lebanese employee at UNESCO. It was, as far as Solange was concerned,“un appartement de vedette”.
Solange still came to see me and I still went to dinner in her loge where she would serve couscous and tell me about Richard and his on again off again romance with his girlfriend. ‘It is easy,’she would say, ‘to rekindle wood that has already been in the fire.’ And all too suddenly there was another funeral and another trip to miserable Montrouge. This time it was the ill-conceived Richard, the moon-faced, blue-eyed son of a Polish soldier who had self-destructed before the age of thirty. Soon after that Solange moved too, and I went to see her in a bigger, grander building close to the Porte Dauphine. But I left it too long between visits and then she too was gone. Not dead. Not then. Perhaps back to Charleville, perhaps to another loge. Now all the concierges have gone, even the Portuguese, replaced by interphones and closed circuit television.