A Sardine Is Not Just a Sardine

I have always liked tinned sardines. When I was a young boy, I found they were the perfect food to take on a hike to Red Hill Creek, King’s Forest, or Albion Falls. Just insert the key, roll back the top, and a fine lunch was ready. During adulthood, I ate them occasionally, but somehow they never tasted as good as the ones I remembered. Then we went to Paris and an old love was rekindled.


It was our first time renting an apartment instead of staying in a hotel. We found a lovely place on the Rue Charlemagne in the Marais. This meant we could make our own meals, and explore markets and food shops. We bought fresh food, but also had great fun looking at and buying food in tins. The French supermarkets have wonderful tinned food unlike anything in Canada. And we are fascinated by packaging. The packaging shown below was irresistible and, as so rarely happens, the contents lived up to the design.

Spicy sardines

Soon no shopping expedition was complete unless we had looked for colourful sardines tins. Some of the empty ones made their way back to Toronto. They were just too pretty to throw away. Perfect for storing paperclips.

Sardine pepper

As with so many things, once one becomes conscious of something it seems to pop up everywhere. We started seeing sardines wherever we looked. Moreover, we started to look more carefully at how they were packaged and presented.

Sardine aviator

Who can resist the World War I aviator, his plane lost in action we presume, and carrying on valiantly in his flying sardine. Perhaps he is looking for a long lost love.

Sardine box

Today, most tinned sardines sold in France come from Portugal. But the design on the tins seems to be fully French, even it if is just an elegant image of a small but beautifully streamlined fish.

Maybe the lack of French sardines inspired this graffiti: “Free the Sardines.” You can find many pictures of this message on the Internet. What does it mean? Some people seem to think that sardines simply need to be freed from their confining tins, but others suggest it has something to do with the overfishing that has more or less ended the French industry.


We once found a clothing shop called Mimi la Sardine, where we bought a T-shirt embroidered with a funny little fish. We wondered about the name, which sounds like a character in a children’s story; it seems it is quite common name for all kinds of things. A Google search took us to a now-defunct dance hall (guinguette) on the banks of the Marne with that name, a children’s art studio in Marseille, a racehorse, a fish shop, a yacht…

The search also showed that images of sardines seem to be a perennial motif in French arts and crafts.

We are fond of postcards and old photos and our heightened sardine consciousness led us to a series of postcards that we described in another blog about the rivalry between Paris and the sardine fishing port of Marseille.


But Marseille is not the only traditional sardine port in France. Once it was Brittany that was closely associated with this fish.

The word “sardine” may be given to a range of fish, including pilchards and immature herrings. Over the years, stocks of these fish have risen and fallen, and these cycles of plenty or scarcity have had an enormous impact on the communities that depend on the sardine fishery. More than once, the economy faced a Sardine Crisis.


It is an old adage that armies march on their stomachs. Napoleon with his ambitious plans for empire had a lot of stomachs to march. So he offered a 12,000-franc prize for the invention of a better method of preserving food. The prize was claimed in 1809 by Nicholas Appert, who came up with a method still used today when “canning” food by sealing the heated and boiled food in airtight glass jars.

The process for “canning” in metal tins might appear to have come from England where Peter Durand was granted an English patent for the process of preserving food in tin-coated metal containers. However, later research revealed that Durand was not the inventor. He was the agent for a Frenchman Philippe de Girard who, at the time, was not eligible for an English patent.  Eventually the lowly sardine, which for centuries had been salted to preserve it, found itself canned and a new industry emerged. An industry based on a French not an English invention.

With the new technology and an abundant supply of sardines, the tinned sardine industry flourished. Other industries grew along with it. Perhaps the most unusual was a fertilizer business, started in the early 1850s by industrialist Ernest de Molon, who used a process invented by an American chemist to produce an odour-free dry powdered fertilizer from the sardine canning factory wastes. Farmers liked the product, which was rich in nitrogen and cheaper than imported guano (accumulated bird droppings). De Molon started separate companies in Newfoundland and Spain.

Gallica-Sardine-fishermenThen came La Crise Sardinière of 1870, when the French catch and output per French factory plummeted by about 50 percent. Everyone connected to the sardine industry suffered, including M. de Molon whose French fertilizer factory went into receivership to Credit Mobilier in 1877.

That would not be the last Crise Sardinière. But in the meantime, times were good in the 1890s when the fish were plentiful. Then 1902 brought another catastrophic collapse. The crisis lasted until 1911. Many of those in the industry fled to other parts of France to find work. Solange Hando writes that “Breton servants were a characteristic part of the population of old Paris. The ‘sardine crisis’ of 1902, when overfishing caused stocks [of sardine] to collapse, forced many young girls from Brittany to leave home and work in Paris. Over 100,000 of them worked as maids, but others became filles de joie in brothels.”* Other women turned to lace-making to earn a living.


The crisis in the French sardine industry also allowed other countries to enter the market. It even led to a court battle over whether the Norwegians could use the term “Sardines de Norvège” for what the French considered a lesser product. The French lost that one.


Nonethelesss, English biologist Edwin Lankester noted in 1915 that “The natural fine quality of the sardine and the skilful ‘tinning’ and ‘flavouring’ of it by the French ‘curers’ of Concarneau in Brittany, have made it celebrated throughout the world as a delicacy. The dealers in Norway sprats—for the purpose of passing off on the public a cheap, inferior kind of fish as something much better—have recently stolen the French curers’ name of ‘sardine,’ and coolly call their sprats ‘sardines.’ The sprats thus cured are soft and inferior in quality to the true sardines which are a less abundant and therefore more costly species of fish.”**

As with so many things in life, what constitutes a sardine depends on our vantage point. A sardine may not always be a sardine. Perhaps it is not inappropriate that this can of sardines is embellished with St. George slaying a dragon.

St George the Sardine

Text by Norman Ball, photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie; historic map, photograph, newspaper, and poster, from Gallica.

* Solange Hando, Paris: Memories of Times Past, with paintings by Mortimer Menpes (Worth Press, 2008), p. 112.
** Quoted in Tim D. SmithScaling Fisheries: The Science of Measuring the Effects of Fishing, 1855-1955 (Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 18.

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Take a seat

We’re relative newcomers to the world of Instagram. Truth be told, we’re relative newcomers to smartphones – until recently our mobile phones could do nothing more than send and receive calls. So quaint.

Once we could send and receive images, I signed on to Instagram and posted a few shots of our surroundings (not, at the moment, Paris).* My followers consist mainly of family members, some friends, and, oddly, attractive young women who post selfies (not sure what that’s about, but it’s a free country).

Instagram is, of course, awash in touristy shots of Paris, but we prefer the less-well-known corners of the city, as captured by photographers such as Adam Roberts on @invisibleparis. And one day, after I posted a shot of an overstuffed chair abandoned on a Toronto sidewalk, I received a “Like” from @lesenchaises, an Instagrammer who posts shots of empty chairs in and around Paris.


The images range from the romantic melancholy of elderly abandoned chairs to the severe banality of plastic chairs in laundromats.

At this point, I realized that Norman, too, has often photographed chairs and benches in the city, so I asked him for some of his best shots. And I was astounded at the diversity of the options Paris offers to those who want to rest their feet.


Park chairs, known as Luxembourg chairs, come in upright and relaxed models in a restful shade of green. Today, these are manufactured by a company called Fermob. According to the Fermob website, “the legendary chairs and armchairs of the Jardin du Luxembourg [were] created in 1923 in the Paris parks department workshops, and…Fermob still manufactures [them]  today for the city’s public gardens.” Fermob is based in Thoissey, about 50 kilometres north of Lyon.

They are actually more comfortable than these lounge chairs on the roof of the Cité de la Mode et du Design, although the view is superb.


And there are café chairs galore, which come in a profusion of colours,


and shapes,


and materials.


Many of the woven rattan chairs come from a company called Maison J. Gatti, based near Fontainebleau.


Their website displays an astonishing range of colours and styles, with names like Bonaparte, Rivoli,  Kléber, Matignon, and Tuileries. I rather fancy a nifty red number called Versailles that I think would look splendid on our front porch.


Then there are the classic folding metal bistro chairs, which are less comfortable and tend to be rickety, but are nonetheless charming and colourful. This one is admittedly past its prime.


These were originally known as “Simplex” chairs and the patent was registered in 1889 by one Edouard Leclerc, so the design is as old as that of the Eiffel Tower. Clearly, 1889 was a good year for metalwork. Apparently the design was immediately popular with sellers of lemonade, who could fold them up at the end of the day, and thereby avoid paying for a fixed terrace for their patrons.


The colourful modern versions are made by Fermob.


Another addition to the roster of famous café chairs is the Tolix A chair, which dates from 1934 and was designed by a metalworker called Xavier Pauchard. These sturdy chairs are made in Autun in Burgundy and were once used on the decks of the S.S. Normandie. We have some recently made galvanized ones on our own back porch; the design has not changed.


But even before Gatti and Simplex and Tolix, there was the classic Thonet chair, the No. 14, one of the bestselling chairs in history, made from six pieces of wood, ten screws, and two nuts. It was launched in 1859 and has sold in the millions. Michael Thonet’s innovation was the steam-bent wood pieces that give the chair its graceful appearance. And it is graceful, but it is not French (Thonet was German and established his business in Vienna).


To us, France seems to be the leader in stylish seating. Even the seating in the Metro has a certain je ne sais quoi – at least the eggcup-shaped metal platform seating, which is more elegant than the plastic (or fiberglas?) seats.


Many tourists form an impression of Paris as a place of endless walking and sore feet. In fact, Paris is a place to sit, to have a coffee, to meet a friend, to read a book in the park. With so many inviting places to take a seat, why walk?


Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs by Norman Ball; photograph of Thonet wooden chair from Wikipedia.

*My Instagram address is @pcampsie, and so far, the pictures are all from Toronto and environs.

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Is there a docteur in the maison?

It began with an insect bite. It was spring, the windows were open, anything could have flown in (French windows don’t have screens). The puncture on my hand was surrounded by a swollen area that got larger as time went on. I treated it with what I had in my travel first aid kit, which wasn’t much. When it got difficult to move my fingers, I went to a pharmacie, as one does in Paris.


The pharmacist suggested I see a doctor. There was one right in the neighbourhood, she said (this was in the Marais), and handed me a card. I called and was given an appointment for later the same day.

I expected to see a middle-aged person in a white coat. What was I thinking? This is Paris. Norman and I were ushered by a fashionably dressed young woman to a waiting room decorated in white, black and orange, with translucent Philippe Starck furniture (did I mention that the doctor’s card was orange?). We weren’t there long enough for our eyebrows to return to their normal resting position when the doctor himself appeared.

He must have been in his early thirties. He was tall and thin, with longish dark hair, dressed in black jeans and an open-necked black shirt. Around his neck was a chain from which dangled a tiny articulated skeleton made of silver. I am not making this up.

Seems you don’t need a white coat to be a professional. He knew what he was doing. I explained some of my homemade efforts to deal with the swelling, which had included soaking the affected hand. He shook his head gravely. “Erreur. Erreur.”

He gave me a prescription for an antibiotic and a cortisone cream and a bill for about 50 euros (this was some years ago). My hand returned to normal in a couple of days.

I now believe that it was a horsefly bite. I have been bitten several more times since that visit, and each time I’ve had an allergic reaction. To this day I do not travel without antihistamines, cortisone cream, and insect repellant. Every night in Paris, while other women drench themselves in Chanel No. 5, I coat myself in Off.

Our latest encounter with the French medical establishment took place last summer. This time, Norman was the patient. He had a painfully infected foot.

At the first pharmacie we visited, the woman behind the counter, whose French was fractionally worse than ours, seemed confused by our request, and said she had no idea where to find a doctor (this in an area with three large hospitals).

The knowledgeable staff at the next pharmacie directed us to the nearest S.O.S. Médecins. It was a Friday morning. The office was closed. We called the number shown on the door. A faint voice told us to leave a message. Norman suggested that we go to an emergency room in the Cochin Hospital nearby, but my Canadian experience of emergency rooms was of long and tedious waits. I wanted an appointment with a named human being. Now.

At this point, I had a hare-brained idea. We had passed a sign for a clinic on a side street. Perhaps they could help.

The clinic was in an 18th century building with a courtyard, somewhat marred by the installation of portable offices. Despite the urgency of the situation, I simply couldn’t resist taking a photograph.


The nun at the desk was stern. We did not have an appointment in advance? Non, we could not see a doctor there. Pas question. She did, however, relent sufficiently to give us the phone number of another S.O.S. Médecins in another arrondissement.

At this point, I was glad of our little French mobile phones. [Short digression: In our last blog, I expatiated on the blessings of a Navigo card. I should also mention that the second thing we do in Paris after renewing those cards is to head to an Orange or SFR store to get a chip for our European flip-phones. The phones are cheap – I think Norman paid 25 Euros for his – and the chip is about 20 Euros for six months. We have never regretted this expense.]

The good news: S.O.S. Médecins could give us an appointment. The bad news: it would be in the 19th arrondissement. Here we were in the 14th, clear across town. Could we be there in 90 minutes? Ouf, we would try.

Norman gamely hobbled to the Metro station, which was not nearby, and seemed to get farther away as we walked. The Metro was unusually slow. Then we had to transfer to the T3 tram. It wound its way through construction sites (does anyone live here?) and deposited us on the boulevard Macdonald opposite the S.O.S. Médecins clinic.

No Philippe Starck here, but stark. No receptionist. Nothing except a row of chairs in an otherwise empty room. The only other patient told us that when he came out of the doctor’s office we should simply go in without being asked.


This doctor was young and brisk. She glanced at Norman’s foot, pronounced her diagnosis (correct, we found, when we checked with our own doctor on our return), and wrote out several prescriptions. One was for a painkiller strong enough to fell a horse (which Norman never did use). Cost of visit: 76 Euros.

We got back on the tram. We limped onto the Metro. We broke our journey at the Place Jules Joffrin, where a pharmacist filled the prescription and gave us careful advice about side effects (also correct, we later found). Then we collapsed into café chairs and Norman took his first dose with a jolt of espresso. We had a grand view of the mairie opposite.


We spent the next few days quietly, and Norman felt much worse before he started to feel better, but his foot did heal in time. In the apartment we were renting, we found a cane that he could use to get about. This proved to have some interesting benefits. People on buses would spring to their feet to allow Norman to sit down if no other seat was available.

Now we’re not superstitious, so I mention this just in passing, but it was our 13th trip to Paris together and that visit to S.O.S. Médecins took place on Friday, June 13.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie

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The blessings of a Navigo card

I spend a fair bit of time on transit. Getting to work three days a week involves a 10-minute bus ride followed by a 20-minute subway trip. Downtown appointments mean a 30-minute streetcar ride.

The Toronto Transit Commission buses are newish and reasonably comfortable. The subway cars are older and a bit dingier (there are newer, fancier ones on the system, but not on the line I regularly take). Twice I’ve had occasion to ride on one of our spiffy new streetcars (only a few are in service), but it will be a couple of years before they are deployed on the line that runs through our neighbourhood.

Not only do I use transit, I think about it and write about it as part of my job. And at times it is hard not to make comparisons with Paris’s ever-expanding transit system. Here are some of the things I miss most about Paris’s transit network.


The Navigo card

One of the first things we do upon arrival in Paris is to go to the nearest Metro station and renew our Navigo cards at an automated machine. You can renew for a week or a month. The system is not perfect: weeks start on Mondays and months start on the 1st. Surely computer technology would allow for a Thursday-to-Thursday week, or a month from the 15th to the 15th, say. Well, not yet. One day, perhaps.

But who’s complaining? I love that card. It’s tap-and-go on the Metro, RER, buses, and trams. No line-ups. No fiddling with tickets. No rapid cost-benefit analysis at the end of the day as to whether it’s worth expending a precious ticket to go two stops along a route or just walk the distance on aching feet.

Toronto offers monthly passes, but the price makes sense only if you commute every day, so I pay as I go. And that means quaint little metal tokens, easy to drop and easy to lose. We’re told smartcard technology is on the way. Bring it on.

Metro stations

Paris’s Metro stations are a mixed bag. When we stayed in the 8th arrondissement, our local station was Franklin Roosevelt, and the No. 1 platform looked like a 1970s disco, with glitzy surfaces and dropped lighting fixtures that obscured the platforms signs. Not sure whose idea that was.

But never mind, just get on that train and swish through the other stations. There is always something to see: historical trivia at Tuileries, reproduction artifacts at the Louvre Rivoli stop, a view of the Bassin de l’Arsenal at Bastille. And of course, our favourite, the Jules Verne–inspired Arts and Métiers stop, to which we devoted an entire blog.

Metro stations are artifacts from more than a century of Metro-building, and there is something for everyone. Some remain much as they were in the early 20th century; others are modernist or futuristic. Some are grim, some are whimsical.


Whimsy is not a feature of Toronto subway stations. The two most heavily used lines were built in the 1950s and the 1970s. The 1950s ones are beginning to acquire a certain retro chic, but the 1970s ones are bland to the point of invisibility. Only the muddy pastel colours of the ceramic wall tiles vary from one station to another. A few newer ones have murals, but they are not on my regular route.


Paris Metro ads are huge, colourful, and varied. All the major museums advertise their latest exhibits, and the department stores lure us with glittery baubles. I recall a special promotion for travel to Morocco that involved life-sized vistas of North African scenery that made you feel you were halfway to an exotic voyage while waiting for a train.

The ads are an integral part of the Metro. Many stations and tunnels have special ceramic frames for them, and many of those frames are enormous. This is the city of spectacle, and the spectacle continues underground.


Sometimes, even the graffiti is imaginative, if baffling.


The rather small ads on Toronto subways and streetcars imply a built-in assumption that only three types of people use transit. (1) High-school students: ads for colleges and universities are ubiquitous and prominent. (2) Tourists: some ads feature local attractions, such as the aquarium or the latest blockbuster theatre production. This month it’s something called “Cannibals.” (3) People with deep-seated personal problems: the largest number of advertisements offer to help me get a job, get out of debt, conquer my gambling (or tobacco) addiction once and for all, or deal with my unwanted pregnancy. Advertisers’ attitudes towards transit riders are disquieting.


Paris keeps updating and renewing its transit system. Driverless trains. Check. Platform barriers for driverless trains. Check. High-speed rail through the centre of the city. Check. Ultramodern trams gliding noiselessly along grassy rights-of-way. Check. Information on the arrival of the next train or bus at nearly every stop. Check. Wifi and cellphone access. Check.


The latest plan in Paris is an even bigger system to serve Le Grand Paris, connecting the suburbs to each other. Today many suburb-to-suburb commuters have to come into the central city and go out again to reach their destination. So Paris has a plan for them, connecting communities around the periphery.

Toronto? We’re still waiting for a few more of those nifty streetcars. Stay tuned.

Serge, the Metro rabbit


Serge is always getting squashed or pinched or otherwise hurt, but he survives it all. He even has his own Twitter account. The fact that he has a name speaks volumes about the Paris approach to public information.

Needless to say, in Toronto safety warnings are stern and serious. No wascally wabbits.


I love the elevated bits of the Metro, when the train heaves itself out of the ground and starts to fly past buildings at the height of the second or third floor. The No. 2 line provides glimpses of the Bassin de la Villette between Stanlingrad and Jaurès. Crossing the river towards Passy on the No. 6 line offers an unparalleled view of the Eiffel Tower.


And for sheer vertiginous thrills, nothing beats the Monmartrobus, a scaled-down version of a regular RATP bus, which climbs the hill from north to south and back again on streets that slope perilously, offering views out over the city. Not to be missed.

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In Toronto, the best part of my routine trip occurs when the train crosses a wide river valley on the lower deck of a double-decker bridge called the Prince Edward Viaduct. The view is best in autumn, when the hillsides turn red and gold. I always look up from my book for this minute-long burst of daylight.


No, I’m not talking about the exchange of meaningful glances with a stranger across a crowded car. I’m talking about the names of stops that conjure up so much of the city’s history (Temple, Opéra, Pyramides, Les Gobelins, Chateau d’Eau, Filles du Calvaire).

Indeed, at least three books use the Metro system as a jumping-off point for further historical explorations.

Metrostop Paris: History from the City’s Heart by Gregor Dallas conveys a dozen stories that start with a stop, so to speak: from Denfert-Rochereau to Père Lachaise, each one a little gem of historical writing.


Metronome: A History of Paris from the Underground Up by Lorànt Deutsch picks one representative stop for each century of Paris’s existence, and weaves the city’s history around these evocative names and places. It’s crammed with historical trivia about those names. Example: I have always wondered why and how the Louvre got its name. Louvred doors? Wrong. It’s from a Frankish word for fort, loewer.

Paris to the Past: Travelling Through French History by Train by Ina Caro covers a range of historical sites accessible by train or by Metro from central Paris, from the Chateau de Vincennes to St-Denis.

Toronto? Most of our subway names are street names, and most of our street names are mundane (Broadview, Dupont, Davisville, Queen Street). The only subway stop with a faint trace of interesting history is Castle Frank, the former site of a little lodge overlooking the Don River owned by the son of one of the city’s founding fathers (calling it a castle was intended as a joke).

Toronto’s redeeming feature

OK, OK, I’m making Toronto sound like a Soviet-era outpost, which is an exaggeration. We are underserved by our overburdened transit system, but we’re Canadians, we manage.

Last Friday, as I was sandwiched into an overcrowded streetcar on a freezing cold day, the driver used the intercom to reduce some of the tension. First, he told some lame jokes. (What do you call a bird in a tree with a briefcase? A branch manager.) We groaned. Then he asked if anyone had a birthday today. As it happened a young voice piped up. “I do.” It was so crowded that I couldn’t see the owner of the voice, but he said his name was Matthew and he had just turned 10. So an entire streetcar full of weary commuters sang “Happy Birthday” to Matthew.

On occasions like that, I love my home town. We have the world’s worst hockey team, and we are going through one of the more viciously cold winters in recent memory, but just when you think the time has come to chuck it all in and emigrate somewhere warmer, preferably with top-notch transit, you find yourself charmed by the people around you.

We love Paris too, and this blog is an expression of our love for that city. Their transit system is infinitely superior to ours and Norman and I feel privileged to use it and our Navigo cards for a few weeks every year. But Toronto is where we live, and despite its grimly utilitarian subway stations, outdated rolling stock, and ridiculous token system, we belong here, along with Matthew, who turned 10 this week.

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Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie.

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Dreaming of Paris Bicycles

As I write this, it is minus 23 Celsius outside, even worse with the wind chill. Earlier this week, when I took a walk beside Lake Ontario, the wind roared across the treacherously slippery boardwalk and cut through my coat; today when I go for a walk, I will wear two coats.


The homeless have wisely abandoned the streets for emergency shelters. Snow blocks the garage door and my bicycle is imprisoned. I daydream of Paris: bicycles, colour, and warmth.

Paris is the place to see unusual bicycles, like the one below. Yes, it might look a bit peculiar, but only because the wheel has been turned around; the forks and the modest handlebar should be facing forward.


It seems forever since we lingered at a café and let the sunshine revive us as we idly commented on an unusual bicycle or whatever else caught our attention.


Not all art has to be mechanically sound. But an attached rear brake cable might be advisable here if the bicycle is to be used for travelling, that is.


As with cars, some neighbourhoods are better than others for spotting upscale machines. Is it the aggressive riding stance? The flat black paint? The carbon fibre forks? Do the gold-plated hubs really make it go faster? This is not everyday Paris.



Nor is this colourful bicycle typical; I smiled when I saw it a few days before Christmas several years ago .


If one seeks the everyday, nothing says it better or more often than the famous rental bikes, the Vélibs.


Neatly parked, they frame everyday activities.


You don’t have to go anywhere to make use of the Vélibs. Sit down, make yourself comfortable, catch up on your e-mail, have a smoke, take it easy.



Vélibs are also fun to ride. A couple of years ago, during a June visit, we noticed  a charity bike ride on the Champs Elysées on a Sunday afternoon. Of course, we decided to join in. We were given a choice of three charities and decided to do our ten laps each for La Fondation du Patrimoine en Ile-de-France.


It was a glorious event. Afterwards we stopped to listen to a band that was there to motivate the cyclists. What better way to transport a keyboard and sound equipment? There was also a drum on wheels.

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The Bassin de l’Arsenal is one of my favourite hangouts. One goes there for the boats and barges, but there are also bicycles. As this English canal barge proceeded through the locks towards the Seine, I chatted with the owner.


We’ve seen many boats with bicycles aboard. Bikes and boats go together as do bikes and Paris: neither has a lot of space to spare.


I never weary of the range of bicycle forms, colour schemes, and accessories. Consider the great variety in panniers or saddlebags.


When you start to look for bicycles, you see them everywhere. Yes, some stick out, but others blend into the landscape as if waiting for someone to discover them. They lure us in.

Some invite into intriguing places we want to explore.


Step off the street and into a courtyard and you are sure to find more bicycles.


Two very common sights: a painted sign invoking the law of 1881 forbidding people from posting signs and a bicycle idly standing by.


On the day we celebrated Philippa’s birthday, we walked through a formal garden where a bicycle waited quietly for someone to return.


One day, we wandered into the Observatoire to see an exhibit. It was stunning and the building itself is an exhibit of another sort; we walked through impressive spaces, up and down time-worn stone stairs. And as I peered through a window, I spotted a bicycle, probably belonging to an employee.


These bicycles probably belong to staff members at the 1728 restaurant on the rue d’Anjou.


Sometimes one finds the whimsical.


Or secret messages.


But even in Paris, time takes its toll.



Sometimes it snows on the bicycles of Paris, but not very often.


Sometimes Paris is where we are lucky enough to go. Other times, Paris is what we dream about. Today is for dreaming.


One day, when it warms up, I will buy some flowers to carry home on my bicycle.

Text and photographs by Norman Ball.

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A bird lover’s guide to Paris


This is one of my favourite photographs from Paris. I use it as the wallpaper on my desktop computer, so that every day, when I sit down to work, I feel for a second that I am taking my place at a café table on the rue Payenne. And it brings back the day in 2012 when Norman and I and a friend sat there chatting over coffee, after a visit to the nearby Musée Carnavalet. This little fellow decided to join the conversation, lured by the crumbs from the biscuits that came with the coffee.

Years ago, some people made a precarious living luring little birds out of the air for the amusement of passersby, as shown in this postcard. The birds on his hands are called Robinet and Jeannette, according to the verse on the card.

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Since sparrows tend to cluster wherever baguette crumbs can be found, I wonder if there was any more art to it than that. Bird whispering? I consulted our book on the “petits métiers de Paris,”* which quoted from Célébrités de la Rue by Charles Yriarte, published in 1864. Yriarte describes watching the Charmeurs d’oiseaux in the Tuileries, who would lure birds with breadcrumbs, but who also seemed to exert a magnetic pull on the creatures, who perched on their hands and heads without fear. There was even a “Charmeuse,” known as Mademoiselle Henriette. Even when she had exhausted her supply of breadcrumbs, the birds would stay with her, following her when she left the park.

Looking at my favourite photo, it occurred to me that many of my happiest days in Paris seem to have a connection to birds. And Norman has taken some wonderful pictures of them. If you like birds, here are some places to see them.

There was the Christmas Day when we walked across the snowy Jardin du Luxembourg, stopping to watch the ducks in the pond that is part of the Medici fountain.


The Square des Batignolles also has resident ducks and the summer day we went there, we spent some time watching them perform elaborate grooming rituals. It is so important to look one’s best in Paris.


We also noticed a baby, not a duckling, to judge by his enormous (but unwebbed) feet.

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We saw a moorhen nearby; could they be related?

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On my birthday a few years back, Norman and I took a stroll across the Bois de Boulogne on a glorious June morning, listening to the weird, strangled cries of peacocks, and amused to see how the birds co-existed peaceably with a large population of semi-feral cats.

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When we arrived at the restaurant in the Bagatelle gardens, Norman presented me with my birthday present – a silver pendant showing birds on a wire, by the Canadian artist Iris Dorton.

The Bagatelle gardens are also home to some fine swans.


And magpies.


We’ve seen lots of crows. In Norman’s photographs, they sometimes appear as a bird-shaped absence in the middle of the image.


And they look impressive in bare winter trees.


The Quai de la Mégisserie is home to a cluster of pet shops, many of which sell exotic birds. One cold winter day we went into one to warm up and found ourselves surrounded by colourful and rather grumpy characters, far from home and longing for the tropics.


A few ignored us completely.

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And then, of course, there are the pigeons. They love Paris. Why wouldn’t they? There are handy little cubbyholes where they can nest.


There are interesting places to perch to get a good view of the passing scene.


There is food to eat and water to drink.


And places to play.


And lots of lovely parks where one can enjoy an undisturbed snooze (this one is in the Parc Monceau).


The municipal authorities are not keen on pigeons, however, and have taken it upon themselves to carry out family planning on behalf of the birds. They have set up large pigeon houses, where they place food and water, and when an egg appears, it is sterilized and prevented from hatching. They call these houses pigeonniers contraceptifs. It’s a relatively humane way of controlling the population, we suppose.


Still, it seems a little ungrateful towards a species that once helped save the city. This was during the siege of 1870-71, when the city was surrounded by Prussian troops, cut off from the rest of the world. The only way for humans to leave was by balloon, and once they left, they could not come back (ballooning was too unpredictable; indeed, one could never know in advance the destination of the outward journey). But pigeons could, and did, return, laden with messages. They travelled out by balloon, were given time to rest before the journey back, then taken as close as safely possible to the city, and released. Most of them found their way back to Paris with their cargo.

And what was that cargo? Microfilm. A photographer, René Dagron, figured out a way to take a picture of hundreds of pages of writing at a time, reduce it to a tiny size, and make copies on rolls of film. These pieces of film were inserted into goose quills attached to the tail feathers of the birds. A single pigeon could carry thousands of letters in this way, and because there were copies, if one bird failed to arrive (the Germans went after them with buckshot and falcons), another would get through. More than 60,000 letters were delivered to Paris addresses during the siege, thanks to the pigeons.**

Of course, pigeons are rather prosaic birds, so in his painting honouring the role of birds in the siege, Puvis de Chavannes used a more attractive dove, cradled by a young woman representing Marianne, the spirit of France, who is fending off a mean-looking German eagle.

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Poor pigeons. It seems their past has been stolen from them, and if the anti-fertility campaign succeeds, they have a diminished future. But I doubt if Paris will ever rid itself entirely of these enterprising and often entertaining birds.


Text and images by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball. Painting by Puvis de Chavannes from Wikimedia.

*Jean-Michel Le Corfec, Les petits métiers de Paris, Editions Sud-Ouest, 2008.

**The full story is told in the wonderful book by Richard Holmes, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, William Collins, 2013.

Posted in Paris gardens, Paris history, Paris parks, Paris postcards, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Enough to make a cow laugh

New Year’s is a time of cleaning up and clearing out, and to that end I have unsubscribed from all kinds of newsletters and mass mailings to keep my head clear and my inbox manageable. But I’m keeping a few, including one I can recommend wholeheartedly to readers of Parisian Fields: the newsletter from Gallica, the online presence of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF). The newsletter is in French, but much on the Gallica website is available in English.

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In the November/December edition, I spotted a familiar face: La vache qui rit, with her dangling earrings of cheese boxes, which show a cow wearing earrings which show a cow wearing earrings which show…presumably an infinite regression (or what the French call mise en abyme). The article profiled Benjamin Rabier (1864–1939), the illustrator who created the jovial red cow.* For years, he was an inspector at Les Halles, the central Paris markets, where he could observe animals up close. But he also drew and painted, creating a menagerie of creatures with distinct personalities, which appeared in books, journals, and children’s papers, in series that were precursors of today’s cartoon strips. His output was vast.

The newsletter article contains more than a dozen links to his illustrations. Among them, I found unexpected uses for snakes…


…vignettes of country life, likely from the Berry Region,** where Rabier lived much of his life…


…a shipboard jazz band so lively that the animals are escaping the borders of the picture…

JazzBand…trees observing a dramatic scene from under a layer of snow…

Trees…and a monkey gazing disconsolately at his own reflection in a hand mirror.

MonkeyLa vache qui rit was only one of Rabier’s publicity posters, not all of which involved animals…

Ambassadeurs…although I was rather taken by this smartly dressed French sardine.


The newsletter shows the poster for the original vache, with her eyes almost closed: in modern versions she looks a bit more alert. Note that the cheese advertised is described as “gruyère.”


Various legends are associated with the creation of this pasteurized cheese made from cream mixed with gruyère, comté, emmenthal, edam, cheddar, or gouda, or some combination of these cheeses (today, the recipe differs according to the country in which it is made). Some say it was a Swiss invention from 1910; others say it was a French invention from about 1920. According to Wikipedia, the name and the image come from French meat supply trucks in the First World War, which were decorated with the image of a laughing cow and known as “Wachkyrie” or “Vachkyrie” – a pun on the “Valkyrie” symbol that marked German army trucks. Frankly, I thought it was one of those language myths that don’t hold up to close scrutiny. So I checked with Gallica.

That took me to the 12 January 1919 issue of La Revue Politique et Littéraire, which describes an exhibition of 155 signs from French army trucks at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris (a BnF link helpfully supplied its address – 8 rue de Sèze, in the 8th arrondissement – and the fact that this gallery operated between 1877 and 1933). The signs showed imaginative and often amusing symbols used in wartime to distinguish the purposes and contents of trucks and vans. And yes, it mentioned (although it did not show) la Wachkyrie. The symbols illustrated in the article include a white mouse and an elephant with a cannon strapped to its back.

ArticleLa Wachkyrie was painted on the sides of the trucks, vans, and converted buses used by Ravitaillement en Viande Fraîche (Fresh Meat Supply).

WachkyrieTruckVersions differ as to who did the original wartime drawing, but I have seen at least one version that includes Benjamin Rabier’s distinctive signature and French Wikipedia says he contributed the image through an official contest. It’s possible.

WachkyrieSignLéon Bel (1878–1957), the man usually credited with developing the soft cheese in the years just after the First World War, may have worked for the RVF (depending on which source you consult), or he may just have been familiar with the image. One way or another, he registered the symbol in 1921 for his “fromage moderne.” But the first packages did not use the same image as the RVF. They show the cow standing up, without earrings, yawning rather than smiling, behind a rudimentary fence.

VacheQuiRitAt some point, it seems, Bel approached Rabier to recreate the original image. The earrings are said to be the suggestion of Bel’s wife, who thought the cow needed to look more feminine. At about the same time, Bel came up with the idea of individually wrapped triangles of cheese, which contributed to the product’s lasting success.

Certainly this nearly 100-year-old invention is going strong. We asked our culinary consultant (Norman’s sister Linda) about the cheese, and she offered the following suggestions:

  1. You can make any kind of vegetable soup with it. Sauté onions, add garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper, some broth, add diced vegetables, such as squash, turnip, carrot, zucchini, leeks, potatoes. Boil gently till veg are soft, purée with immersion blender or food processor, having added in 1–4 wedges of the cheese, depending on taste and quantity.
  2. Add 1 or 2 portions of La Vache Qui Rit to scrambled eggs. Stir to melt in.
  3. Drain a can of giant escargots, sauté in butter (and/or oil if desired) with 1 or 2 cloves crushed garlic. Remove escargots and set aside. Add a little broth or reserved liquid from can to the pan, heat and whisk in 1 or 2 wedges of La Vache Qui Rit until melted, return escargots to pan, stir to heat and coat in cheese. You could also grate a little aged cheddar over it before serving.

Of course, results will vary according to which country you are in. But bon appétit and Happy New Year to all.


Text by Philippa Campsie, all images from Gallica, except for the picture of the army truck, the Wachkyrie sign, the original can of cheese, and the winking cow. For more information, see the Maison de la Vache Qui Rit, a museum devoted to the brand. Thanks to Linda Prinsthal for the recipes.


*The choice of Rabier for the newsletter was prompted by an exhibit devoted to his work at the Museum of Children’s Illustration in Moulins (about 2½ hours by train from Paris, according to their website). If we were in France right now, we’d go.

**As it happens, I am also reading an absorbing book about this part of La France profonde: Célestine: Voices from a French Village, by Gillian Tindall (Henry Holt and Company, 1995).

Posted in Paris food, Paris history, Paris popular culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments