Monday, April 03, 2006

Reminders

Living in France, one is constantly confronted with history.

Not a day goes by without History - yes, with that capital H - coming up and smacking one in the face. Goethe reportedly said about Paris: "Every step upon a bridge or a square recalls a great past where a fragment of history is unrolled at every corner of every street." He was right, Amerloque feels. Whether strolling every day in Paris, or taking an exceptional promenade in the provinces, an American will observe that the Past is always Present.

The other day, after purchasing a box of brochures and papers, Amerloque was reminded of History's propinquity, in a rather striking manner.

One of Amerloque's favorite pastimes is la chine, that is, wending his way through street sales and weekend flea markets, sorting through the items offered for sale, and purchasing those which catch his interest – frequently for a couple of euros. Amerloque is not necessarily interested in the valuable, but more in the unusual, the rare, the collectible and the arcane.

As the tourist guides never fail to point out, there are two major flea markets in Paris. The most famous one, the "first" one, the "must see", is out at the Porte de Clignancourt, on the northern edge of the city. This is the enormous, "touristy" one, filled with everything - including kitchen sinks of various styles. Dedicated, fanatical collectors can probably find the object they've been dreaming of for ages: at a price, naturally, as stiff as the euro-based market will bear. Amerloque feels that this is undoubtedly the final season to visit this marché aux puces in its current incarnation. Two of the upscale Clignancourt markets were purchased outright several months ago by the His Grace the Duke of Westminster – and the Paris City Hall has announced plans to "rationalize" and "improve" Clignancourt. The inevitable changes are scheduled for late this year or early next year. Given this City Hall's abysmal track record on "improvements", one should expect anything and everything, usually tending toward the pedestrian, the insipid and the humorless.

The second flea market is at the Porte de Vanves, at the opposite edge of town. For many, many years it was the booksellers' corner, where one could purchase armloads of books for centimes. Amerloque used to have loads of fun there. When the slaughterhouses in the 15th arrondissement were razed some time ago, the booksellers moved to a refurbished open-sided building there (the old horse pavilion) that had been reserved for them. The venue is now called the Parc Georges-Brassens: the book market takes place on Saturdays and Sundays. Out at Vanves on weekends, the formerly calm booksellers' bailiwick is now filled with raucous dealers selling mainly furniture and decorative items. Last time Amerloque looked, he saw far too many "remanufactured" items, bitzas, and worthless bangles (la drouille) being sold at outrageous prices to a gullible public. Caveat emptor ! at Vanves.

By the way, the adventurous chineur could do worse than to visit the flea market in Montreuil, a suburb on the east side of the city. Among Paris cognoscenti, it's also called la cour des miracles in memory of another age. Jammed up against the Boulevard Péripherique at the Porte de Montreuil, it offers anything and everything, at all prices: there are supposedly over 1000 dealers every weekend. As a general rule, the deeper one goes into the market, the more interesting the items are. The market in the Place d'Aligre ? In Amerloque's view, it is understocked, overpriced and not very intriguing at all, unless one has never, ever, seen an outdoor used goods market in one's life.

Amerloque no longer frequents these flea markets on a regular basis. They have become, like so many things in modern life, simple and banal products to be consumed - sanitized and standardized so as not to offend. Over the past decade, however, there has been an explosion in the number of one-day - or weekend - flea markets, generally called vides-greniers, brocantes or foires à tout. Non-professional sellers can legally participate in two per year with no formalities. Many small and medium sized towns - and even neighborhoods of the larger cities - put on a yearly event, hoping to increase solidarity among the inhabitants while bringing in a bit of badly needed municipal revenue.

Along with millions of French men and women, Amerloque is a fan of these bric-a-brac markets, which rival American "swap meets" and British "car boot sales" for folklore, festivities and fun. With the advent of Spring, each weekend offers an excellent opportunity to locate that cup, saucer, napkin, or brooch that one has been searching for. Amerloque, for his part, particularly appreciates magazines, books and chinoiseries. Too, he collects anything to do with Americans in Paris.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, far more Americans than today lived in and around Paris, for US troops were stationed here because, until 1966 or so, France was an active military participant in NATO. Several Western suburbs of Paris had more than their fair share of American families, and it is to these towns that Amerloque invariably treks when they stage their annual vide-greniers or brocantes. Sometimes the most surprising "American" items can magically appear in the dross on a rough wooden plank perched on sawhorses, of an early Saturday or Sunday morning: objects that have lain forgotten in garages or attics since the American families moved away in the 1960s and 1970s.

Two weeks ago, for the modest sum of two euros, Amerloque purchased a small box of pamphlets and papers that had clearly once belonged to an American family that had counted at least one traveler among its members. The items in the carton, all in excellent condition, included brochures and guides to France and Germany, as well as postcards, used museum tickets and photographs. Everything, including an official American travel document, dated from 1927. There were several scruffy visiting cards, two of them German, in one of the travel guides.

One of them had the words "aboard Rhine boat" pencilled on it. Another visiting card had "Berlin, Germany" written on it, in the same hand. It was clear to Amerloque – who in his lifetime has seen many such batches of documents - that these were papers relating to an American's sojourn to Paris in the fall of 1927 and his subsequent tour, to see the sights. Paris, Versailles, Verdun, the Rhine, perhaps Berlin - nothing special, Amerloque thought, simply more docs, some in excellent shape, to add to his own collection. Thousands upon thousands of Americans, with their strong dollars, had come to Europe that year, and Amerloque already has quite a few collectibles ...

However, Amerloque hesitated a bit before summarily filing away the visiting cards. Not too many German ones come his way: he doesn't collect them, nor is he interested in them, unless there is in some fashion an American connection. Amerloque thought about it a moment ... yes, there was an American connection here, and hence more information was needed.



Briefly, he tried to visualize the scene: two men in "tourist" attire, each representing his country (one on the victorious side in "The War To End All Wars", the other on the losing side) - on the deck of a Rhine cruise ship, politely and formally exchanging visiting cards in the Autumn of 1927. The front of the German's card says "M. Schnabrich - Reichstag Member", in German. The back contains writing; some of it is presumably in Schnabrich's hand ... Amerloque continued to visualize ... Was the Rhine boat within hailing distance of the Rock of the Lorelei ? What language did they communicate in ? Were they laughing and smiling, or were they slightly stiff and serious ? Were their spouses with them ? Did they ever see each other again, perhaps in Berlin ?

Amerloque began his search ... at the time he met the unnamed American traveler, this Herr Michael Schnabrich, born on August 6, 1880, was a member of the Reichstag, from Bad Hersfeld. Amerloque was able to find a picture of him on the internet.


After a long political career, he died on October 9th, 1939, at the age of 59 ... in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, near Berlin, where he was sent by the Nazis at the outbreak of World War 2.

Could he - and the American with whom he exchanged visiting cards - ever have imagined such an end, in those halcyon days of 1927 ?

Michael Schnabrich, reaching down through the years, has strikingly and unexpectedly reminded Amerloque once again that History always has the last word. Always.


* * * * *

The French, by and large, feel that History is important. They feel that a people that doesn't know where it has been cannot know where it is going. Indeed, some observers - especially foreign ones - feel that the French people are "living in the past". They accuse the French of "conservatism" and being "reluctant to change". This might, or might not, be true: it depends on the circumstances.

The people currently in charge at the Paris City Hall, at any rate, apparently have no qualms when it comes to change.

Legions of Parisians and tourists have appreciated the beauty of the colonnes Morris since they first appeared 155 years ago, in 1850. Invented by one Gabriel Morris, a printer in the rue Amerlot in Paris, they are as much a part of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or Sacre Cœur. Each column usually contain several colorful posters advertising spectacles: theatre, concerts and the like. Americans might be interested to know that Gabriel was apparently a somewhat distant relative of the American historical figures Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris.

The ayatollahs in the City Hall have decided to remove all the Morris Columns so as to "reduce advertising in the capital". The past ten days or so have seen the removal of 223 colonnes Morris. Between July and October of this year, the remaining 500 will be unbolted, unseated and thrown into the dustbin of history. Some of these columns might be replaced with "modern" ones, but these new ones, from what Amerloque has seen, are quite "blah" and do absolutely nothing for the charm of Paris.

Marguerite Duras, the French journalist, once wrote:

Paradoxically, the freedom of Paris is associated with a persistent belief that nothing ever changes. Paris, they say, is the city that changes least. After an absence of twenty or thirty years, one still recognizes it.

Duras died before the current Mayor took power. The Paris she knew and loved is dying, day by day and step by step. By the time they have finished their odious "improvement" schemes, the Mayor and his clique will have damaged Paris more than any administration since the Commune. They are turning Paris into just another city, removing its soul and replacing it with the shoddy, the mundane and the vacuous.

Paris belongs to the world, not to the doctrinaire incompetents at the Paris City Hall.


L'Amerloque


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque

11 Comments:

Blogger tazey said...

Hi L'amerloque,

But the colonnes Morris on the Champs-Elysées are used to hide the phone booths! They can't just be removed!

That decision really makes me sad. I like the design of those columns. Removing them is like tearing down the art déco entrances to the métro. *shakes head*

Corinne

11:46 AM  
Blogger La Rêveuse said...

Some of those columns even hide toilettes! And those are the decent looking ones--the modern ones are pretty fugly, in my opinion, but necessary nonetheless.

How interesting and yet sad about your German card-bearer. Man's cruelty to man is the greatest tragedy.

I think this is perhaps the most melancholy post I've seen from you.

Are you OK?

1:09 PM  
Blogger Nancy said...

We stayed in the 15th a few years ago. My son and I walked down to the park every day and I have pictures of us buying books at that market. It is one of my nicest Paris memories.

I also lived in a small town in Texas with the "worlds largest flea market" First Monday in Canton. I hadn't been there in years, so I went last summer. Lots of stalls with stuff from China. The charm was definately gone. Too bad, it really used to be a wonderous place full of amazing "stuff"

7:28 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Corinne !

/*/But the colonnes Morris on the Champs-Elysées are used to hide the phone booths! They can't just be removed!/*/

The ones you speak of are apparently the replacements. Many of the original colonnes Morris have already been removed … and ones with phones or public toilets have taken their places.

/*/Removing them is like tearing down the art déco entrances to the métro./*/

Oh, yes, Amerloque quite agrees with you !

Best,
L'Amerloque

1:01 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Mrs B !

/*/Some of those columns even hide toilettes! And those are the decent looking ones--the modern ones are pretty fugly, in my opinion, but necessary nonetheless./*/

There are apparently two "new", modern kinds still to be unveiled. The ones with toilets and/or phones are already replacements for the old ones, which were put out to pasture.

/*/How interesting and yet sad about your German card-bearer. Man's cruelty to man is the greatest tragedy. I think this is perhaps the most melancholy post I've seen from you. Are you OK?/*/

Yes, fine. Thanks for your concern. (smile) Amerloque becomes melancholy - downright depressed, even - every time he runs into that cruelty you speak of. The last thing Amerloque was expecting to find was that the member of the Reichstag had died in a concentration camp. (sigh)

Ameloque enjoyed your account of the visit to Nantes immensely, by the way. (smile)

Best,
L'Amerloque

1:07 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Nancy !

/*/I hadn't been there in years, so I went last summer. Lots of stalls with stuff from China. The charm was definately gone. Too bad, it really used to be a wonderous place full of amazing "stuff"/*/

When charm has disappeared, depression sets in. (sigh) Many flea markets throughout the world seem to offer a lot of new, imported "antiques" and "genuine decorative items". There was a documentary on French TV last autumn that showed the organizers of one of the larger annual French shows attempting to close down the dealers that were offering new items, rather than used stuff. Apparently about 20% of the dealers were selling "new" only !

Best,
L'Amerloque

1:15 AM  
Blogger Flocon said...

J'ignorais cette affaire des colonnes Morris, je vous remercie de m'en avoir informé.
Cela a donc donné lieu à délibération et vote au conseil municipal. Comment a voté Panaf? (smile)...

"Le visage de Paris change plus vite que le coeur d'un mortel"

2:49 PM  
Blogger Tomate Farcie said...

Such a shame... I really don't understand the need to remove the old Colonnes Morris. They don't take that much room, they look nice, and ... well, they've been there for generations, so should't they be classified "historical" and be protected as such by now?

11:44 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Flocon !

/*/Cela a donc donné lieu à délibération et vote au conseil municipal. Comment a voté Panaf? (smile).../*/

Ah, le Conseil de Paris: ce n'est pas évident. D'après ce qu'Amerloque a pu glaner, il n'y avait pas de vote sur les colonnes per se, mail il peut se tromper, bien sur. La décision était plutot dans le cadre d'une "reduction globale de la pub" en ville. Z'auraient pu s'occuper en premier de toutes les horreurs publicitaires en haut des immeubles, et les pubs sur les portieres des taxis.

Panaf ? The standardbearer - for the moment, anyway – for those who want the current incompetent City Hall team put out to pasture. (smile)

Best,
L'Amerloque

12:54 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Tomate !

Welcome ! (smile)

/*/ …/… colonnes morris … well, they've been there for generations, so should't they be classified "historical" and be protected as such by now?/*/

From what Amerloque has been able to gather, JC Decaux purchased the original "colonnes Morris" company a while back and has been "upgrading" them, slowly but surely.

If no preservation group or association went to bat for the colonnes in the past, they wouldn't have been classified as historical monuments. For example, the lengthy procedures to preserve all the Samaritaine buildings and Art Nouveau / Art Deco facades as historical monuments were brought to a successful conclusion only in ... 1990.

Best,
L'Amerloque

12:59 AM  
Blogger Tongue in Cheek Antiques said...

I liked this peice, the weaving tale, the bits and pieces, the path that wanders now and wonders of before.

Perfectly described.

Thank you.

12:00 AM  

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