They Sell Onions, Don’t They?

On a recent trip to London, we visited the Slightly Foxed Book Shop on Gloucester Road. We recommend it highly.

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One of the treasures Philippa acquired there was They Eat Horses Don’t They? The Truth About the French by Piu Marie Eatwell. It introduced us to the story of the Onion Johnnies of Brittany and how they came to represent Frenchmen and Frenchness to generations of English and Scots.

A few days later, when we were visiting some of Philippa’s relatives in Scotland, they recounted childhood memories of seeing Onion Johnnies in Glasgow and Dundee. A story that was utterly new to Philippa and me was very familiar to her Scottish relatives.

Who were the Onion Johnnies? They were itinerant onion vendors who came from Brittany to sell their famous pink onions in the U.K., primarily England and Scotland. They arrived in the U.K. in late July or early August and stayed until Christmas or early January.


Back in Toronto, we located a wonderful book called Onion Johnnies: Personal Recollections by Nine French Onion Johnnies of their Working Lives in Scotland. It represents an astounding effort by the Scottish Working People’s History Trust and the European Ethnological Research Centre.


It’s not clear how or when the trade started, but references to French onion sellers in England and Scotland go as far back as the late 1820s. All the Johnnies seemed to come from Brittany, particularly from Roscoff and neighbouring villages such as St Pol de Léon, Plouescat, and Santec, where the distinctive onions were grown.

Life in Brittany has never been easy (in a previous blog we mentioned the vicissitudes of the sardine catch) and the area grew more onions than the regional market could absorb. Exports were necessary.

At first, Onion Johnnies travelled to Great Britain by sailboat with a cargo of freshly harvested pink onions and perhaps some shallots and garlic. Later, ferries and trains replaced the sailboats. According to Eatwell, the Anglo-French trade carried on by the Onion Johnnies “peaked in the late 1920s—when 9,000 tons of onions were sold in England by 1,400 Johnnies—before gradually petering out.”


Many in the onion trade were connected by family ties. The Johnnies were organized with ouvriers (workers) under a patron (boss). The patron had to find a shop or warehouse to serve as a base for storing and preparing the onions for sale, as well as to provide rudimentary living space for the sellers. The patron also determined the daily quotas that the ouvriers had to sell, some of whom were less than 10 years old.

Ouvriers pushed two-wheeled hand carts or charrettes and then loaded sticks, or batons, with onions. They carried the batons over a shoulder, going from house to house, and knocking on doors. A freshly loaded baton could weigh as much as 50 or 60 pounds, providing the Onion Johnnies with strong incentive to sell the onions quickly.

Living conditions were spartan. Home base was often an old shop, lined with stacks of onions. When eight-year-old Jean Saout arrived in Glasgow in the 1920s, his father was a patron. Jean recalls that they used a big shop. “My father and I and all the Onion Johnnies slept there… We slept on straw and we had blankets to cover ourselves with… But you slept well, you slept well.”

In 1930, 13-year-old Jean Milin began working full-time as an Onion Johnny in Leith:

There were no beds—only straw… we all slept together in a row on the straw, like herrings or sardines! I was the youngest and I was in the middle of the row. You had covers, blankets. But we also had a sack or bag to sleep in—a sleeping bag. Oh, it was very comfortable. We were there all together, quite warm in the straw, so we didn’t feel the cold.

The facilities included a small kitchen, a table to eat on, a tap with running water, and (wonder of wonders) a flush toilet downstairs. Not all the Onion Johnnies enjoyed such amenities.

Conditions improved somewhat in the late 1940s. Some Johnnies who worked out of vans and were away for more than a day stayed overnight in hotels that bought onions from them. However, they were the exception. Yves Rolland was a teenage Johnny who worked from a base in Maritime Street, Leith, in the 1960s. “The shop was full of onions. So at that time we slept in very cramped conditions. Have you ever had rats running on top of you?”

The young ouvriers received no cash for their work; their share was sent home to their parents. Those who were paid directly generally received wages only at the end of the onion-selling season. No wonder that when householders asked the cost of onions, the ouvrier would give the price and then say, “and a penny for myself.”

The days could be long, as ouvriers seldom returned to home base until all the onions were sold. Looking back on his work as an ouvrier in Leith in the 1950s, Yves Rolland could remember leaving the shop at five in the morning and not returning until “about half past-ten at night.” But, he added, “that wasn’t a normal day’s work. It depended how lucky you were. But normally it was round about seven or eight at night we used to finish. Most days the leaving time from the shop or the base was from about six, half-past six in the morning.”

The long hours of Monday to Friday were shortened on Saturday to midday or mid-afternoon. Sundays were for “stringing the onions or…gathering rushes from the fields for stringing them.” Straw or hay from nearby fields could also be used.


Numerous photos show Onion Johnnies with strings of onions slung over bicycles, which by the 1930s were replacing handcarts and batons. It was still hard work, as some routes covered long distances with a heavy load. After the Second World War, vans became more common, They “were employed as mobile depots from which the Johnnies, lifting out their laden bikes once that day’s destination was reached, could pedal their rounds and return to the van again for fresh supplies if needed.” Onion-laden bicycles also travelled on trains and tramcars.

Were the Onion Johnnies “representative Frenchmen”? To many people, Onion Johnnies were stereotypically French: beret, bicycle, and striped shirts (although the photographs we have seen show them wearing darker, more practical clothing and some wear brimmed hats, not berets). But they represented a specific culture within France, not the whole of France. Moreover, many of the original Onion Johnnies spoke Breton, a Celtic language similar to Welsh, rather than French.

What strikes me most about the accounts is the hard work they did. Jean Milin summed it up with “We Onion Johnnies were always working. It was a hard life.” Claude Quimerech stated, “We simply didn’t have plenty money! It was very hard, very, very hard.”


Jean Saout strikes one as a thoughtful workman. In 1965 when he was 52 years old and had been an Onion Johnny in Glasgow for more than 40 years, he retired from the job, but not from working.

Well, I never got rich selling onions, ah, no! I just made enough to live on and to drink a little glass of wine. But I never wanted to change my job, never. I never had any ambitions to do any other job like being a seaman or working on the railways. It was the same when I was working the other months of the year with the vegetables at home in Brittany.

Years later, aged 86, he told an interviewer,

The life of the Onion Johnnies was hard—and it was hard for their wives and families at home, too. But you had to live as best you could. I wouldn’t like to begin all over again, though at least one doesn’t have to sleep on straw any more! I don’t regret having worked as an Onion Johnnie at Glasgow. But it was a hard job, too hard.

Whenever we get nostalgic about the past, we do well to remember how hard things were for many people. The sight of an Onion Johnny pushing his bicycle may conjure up “the good old days” for many in England and Scotland, but this was hard, lonely work for little pay, with only a sack of straw to sleep on at night.

Text by Norman Ball. Photos from Wikimedia; except for the final photograph above, which is from Buffalo Dandy; apparently the Buffalo Lazy Randonneur Club sponsors an annual Johnny Onion ride in September – photographs from the 2014 event are delightful.

Quotations, unless otherwise credited, from Ian MacDougall, Onion Johnnies: Personal Recollections by Nine French Onion Johnnies of their Working Lives in Scotland, Tuckwell Press, 2002. I am grateful to the Scottish Working People’s History Trust and the European Ethnological Research Centre for helping me see French history more fully.

They Eat Horses Don’t They? The Truth About the French by Piu Marie Eatwell, was published by Head of Zeus Press, 2013.

Roscoff in Brittany has a museum called “La Maison des Johnnies,” where you can explore the history of these hard workers. Here is a leaflet from the museum.


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Learning to see: Emily Carr in France

She arrived in Paris with her trunks, her sister Alice, and a malevolent grey parrot called Rebecca. She had purchased Rebecca in Liverpool, where the ship from Canada had docked, and brought the disagreeable bird the rest of the way by train. One can only imagine. Here is her picture of the travelling party.


Emily Carr came to Paris in the autumn of 1910, after making the long journey from Canada’s West Coast. She was 38 years old and had previously studied art in San Francisco and London. She later wrote in her memoirs:

My sister [Alice] knew French but would not talk. I did not know French and would not learn. I had neither ear nor patience. I wanted every moment of Paris for Art. … I wanted now to find out what this “New Art” was about. I heard it ridiculed, praised, liked, hated. Something in it stirred me… I saw at once that it made recent conservative painting look flavourless, little, unconvincing.

She had mastered the techniques of “conservative painting” in her previous schools, but they were a poor match for her subject matter – the dense, dark, dripping forests of the Pacific Northwest, its mountains and seascapes, and the settlements (some populated, some abandoned) of the native peoples with their haunting totem poles.

Emily and Alice found lodgings on rue Campagne Premiere in Montparnasse and Emily attended classes at the Académie Colarossi, rue de la Grande Chaumière. This picture of the Académie dates from about 1908.


Emily chose the school on the recommendation of another artist, because Colarossi’s allowed both men and women to work in the studio together, rather than segregating them. This was all very well, but Emily was the only woman attending at that particular point, and with her poor French, she felt isolated. Worse, the school didn’t really give her what she was looking for – the “New Art” with its vivid colours, looser brushwork, and abstracted forms, done in the open air.

After several weeks, she became ill and went to Sweden to recuperate (it felt reassuringly like Canada). When she returned to France in spring 1911, she avoided the city and took a class in landscape painting in Crécy-en-Brie, about 50 km away (Alice stayed in Paris). At this point, Emily really started to enjoy herself. She struck up wordless friendships with local women and children, and fell in with the rhythms of country and village life.

Crécy-en-Brie (now called Crécy-la-Chapelle) was a little town defined by a set of canals that in those days was two hours from Paris. Today it is on a suburban commuter rail line just east of EuroDisney, but the centre of the town looks, at least on the map, much as it did in Emily’s day.


By this time, Emily had a new travelling companion. The bad-tempered Rebecca had been replaced with a good-natured green parrot called Josephine, who spoke more French than her owner and helped Emily make friends with local residents.

I tramped the country-side, sketch sack on shoulder. The fields were lovely, lying like a spread of gay patchwork against red-gold wheat, cool, pale oats, red-purple of new-turned soil, green, green grass and orderly, well-trimmed trees… At night I met weary men and women coming home, bent with toil, but…pausing to nod at me and have a word with Josephine… She wore an anklet and chain and rode on the rung of my campstool.

From Crécy, Emily went to Brittany with friends, and spent time in St-Efflamme and Concarneau. St-Efflamme was a tiny hamlet buried in the countryside, and if you Google it, pretty much the only images you will find are those by Emily Carr. Concarneau is a fishing village on the coast, where Emily sketched “the people, their houses, boats, wine shops, sail makers in their lofts.”

Emily returned to Canada in fall 1911, but not before exhibiting a couple of paintings in the Salon d’Automne. This was a large event that embraced all forms of art; Emily’s was in a room with other “innovators,” including Cubists and Fauvists. Her work did not attract much attention, but it was heartening to participate.


I came home from France stronger in body, in thinking, and in work than I had returned from England. My seeing had broadened… [My new work] had brighter, clearer colour, simpler form, more intensity… I was glad I had been to France. More than ever I was convinced that the old way of seeing was inadequate to express this big country of ours, her depth, her height, her unbounded wideness, silences too strong to be broken.

Alas, British Columbia was not ready for this new way of seeing. Emily exhibited in Victoria and Vancouver, both works she had executed in France as well as scenes of the Pacific Northwest in her new style. Although she did receive some good reviews, most people reacted to her work with dismay or ridicule. The clearer, more intense colours and the Impressionistic style did not appeal to a more-English-than-the-English community that saw the world through mild watercolour spectacles.

For example, consider two images of an arbutus tree, both by Emily Carr, the one on the left done in 1909 in the approved English style and the other painted after the trip to France. Which would you rather put on your wall?


In 1913 in British Columbia, the art world made its choice. Emily’s art classes attracted no students and her exhibits attracted no sales. She stopped painting. The war came, and she made ends meet running a boarding house, breeding Bobtail Sheepdogs, and producing ceramics for the tourist trade.

Photograph with dogs

Still, during this apparently unproductive period, word of her work was making its way to Ottawa. In 1927 she was asked to contribute 26 paintings to an exhibit in the National Gallery of Canada. Suddenly, her work found an appreciative audience, and at the age of 56, she became an “overnight” sensation.

For the next 18 years, she painted, exhibited, lectured, and wrote books (some Canadians knew her as an author before they ever saw her pictures). She continued to refine her style, drawing inspiration from the art of the native peoples of the West Coast. The works most people associate with her name date from this late period. It is encouraging to think of her doing all that in her sixties. Hope for us all.


She worked herself to the point of exhaustion (as she always had), and died in 1945. Today, her art is celebrated – an exhibit in England at the Dulwich Picture Gallery earlier this year, and currently, an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario that inspired this blog.

I keep thinking about those parrots, though. How appropriate that she rid herself of the nasty grey, colourless parrot from England and befriended instead a gregarious green, French-speaking parrot who accompanied her on painting trips and helped her communicate with the people she met. I wonder what happened to Josephine…


Text by Philippa Campsie, all quotations from Growing Pains by Emily Carr.

Cartoon by Emily Carr from Sister and I: From Victoria to London (Royal BC Museum, 2011); photograph of Colarossi’s, catalogue cover, and parrot image from Wikimedia; antique map from Gallica; arbutus trees by Emily Carr from Dulwich on View; photograph of Emily Carr in 1918, Vancouver Art Gallery; Indian Church by Emily Carr from the Art Gallery of Ontario.

For more images of Emily Carr’s paintings, visit the virtual museum of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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American clubs and Canadian fists

“We went to the American Club.” The words sound simple enough. But if you want to identify the address in question, complications arise. It depends on who is talking and when. Paris is positively littered with sites that are or have been referred to as “the American Club” over the past century or so.

The quest began when I tried to track down what Canadian writer Morley Callaghan meant when he wrote about boxing with Ernest Hemingway in June 1929 at the “American Club.” The story appears in his memoir That Summer in Paris, published in 1963,

summerToday, if you Google “American Club of Paris,” the location specified is that of Reid Hall on the rue Chevreuse in Montparnasse. Reid Hall was once the American Girls’ Club, later the American University Women’s Club (not to be confused with the American Women’s Club on the Right Bank), and is now part of Columbia University. Today, the American Club holds monthly Happy Hours at Reid Hall. In the 1920s, though, Reid Hall was the preserve of women. I can’t picture Hemingway and Callaghan sparring there.

So I think Callaghan must have been referring to the United States Artists’ and Students’ Club at 107, boulevard Raspail. The building is still there, visible on Google Street View.


It was a shape-shifting entity that changed its name and location three times and is more celebrated now by the French than the Americans. Here is its story.

In the 1920s, the clergy of the American Cathedral in Paris wanted to offer young Americans a wholesome alternative to the temptations of Montparnasse cafes and dance halls. The club they created became a home away from home for many visitors. When it outgrew its original premises, a new building was constructed farther down the boulevard in the early 1930s.

I found a nostalgic description of the original club from that time:

The United States Students’ and Artists’ Club soon moves into a magnificent new building of imposing dimensions. [But] we shall question… whether the spacious accommodations of the new club building can promise anything like the rich quality of familial intimacy 107 [boulevard Raspail] afforded us…

In all the world, will it ever be given to any kitchen, let alone that of the new building, to be the scene at tea times of such incredible commotion and unheard of traffic as was that silly little two by four cupboard so generously and euphemistically termed “kitchen”?

[And] is it likely that we shall be at liberty to sprawl over, under, and inside Canon Belshaw’s desk, as we did at 107 whenever the spirit moved us, and shall we be able to make his office the warehouse for our books, hatboxes, suitcases, radio sets, umbrellas, baby carriages, etc., etc., and leave them there till we sail for home?*

One can just picture the place: overcrowded, a bit shabby perhaps, but welcoming and full of life. But – and this immediately piqued my curiosity – it was hard to picture the new building. It has gone, demolished to make way for the Cartier Foundation at 261, boulevard Raspail. Try as I might, the only images I could find online showed the front door only. The following is from Wikipedia:


Eventually, I found a picture in a book,** and as a service to anyone else who might be curious, I provide this aerial view of it in the 1970s:

Scan_20150529 (2)

And a view of the library:

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Renamed the American Students’ and Artists’ Center, it occupied a tree-shaded property that included a huge cedar of Lebanon planted by Chateaubriand. The facilities included a fully equipped theatre, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a library, and artists’ studios on the top floor.

After the Second World War, membership was opened to people of all nationalities. Renamed simply the American Center, it developed a reputation as a venue for avant-garde concerts, plays, exhibits, and those indescribable events known as “happenings.” It was a far cry from the intentions of its founders, but it filled a need at the time, and artists from all countries gathered there. Today, the main records of the place are in French, not in English (there is, for example a French Wikipedia article, but not an English one devoted to it).

When the building started to deteriorate in the 1980s, the management sold the property and commissioned a new facility by Frank Gehry for a site in Bercy. Big mistake. The cost of the new building bankrupted the organization. The French government bought the Gehry building and turned it into a cinémathèque. And the American Center vanished.

But that was in the 1990s and I’m getting away from my original mission. In the 1920s, it was a club, not a an arts centre, and its function was very different. So it is a reasonable candidate for the location of Callaghan’s and Hemingway’s boxing practice.

I even checked a 1927 copy of Express Guide to Paris and Environs. It lists something called the American Club and notes that it holds weekly lunches. But it does not provide an address. I assume the this entity had no fixed premises and members met at various restaurants for its events. For example, when Charles Lindbergh addressed the American Club just after his Atlantic Crossing in May 1927, he did so at the Hotel Ambassador. The guide also mentions the United States Artists’ and Students’ Club at 107, boulevard Raspail, and notes that it had a billiard room.


So what did Callaghan say about the “American Club” in his memoir?

The story starts when he and his wife Loretto visit Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, at the Hemingways’ apartment at 6, rue Ferou, near the Luxembourg Gardens.

Hemingway challenges Callaghan then and there to a quick demonstration of the latter’s boxing skills, and after some cautious sparring in the drawing room, Hemingway suggests a proper round. “Not far away was the American Club. It had no ring, but there was lots of space.”

Could that be the overcrowded place on the boulevard Raspail? A few days later, they visit the “American Club, where Ernest seemed to be at home.” They go “downstairs and into a back room that had a cement floor” which appears to be used for gymnastics, and is next to a billiard room. Aha, a billiard room.

After boxing, they go for drinks at an unnamed café, but when they part, Callaghan heads for Le Sélect on the boulevard de Montparnasse, which is in easy walking distance. Another time, they repair to the Falstaff Bar, near the corner of the boulevard de Montparnasse and the rue de Montparnasse. Again, in the general vicinity.

Then comes the fateful afternoon when Callaghan knocked out Hemingway, possibly because F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was acting as timekeeper, failed to stop them after a three-minute round. Or possibly because Callaghan, who had learned to box at college, was simply a better trained and more experienced fighter. In any case, the round went on for at least an extra minute (in later life, Hemingway suggested that it was even longer than that) and Hemingway wound up flat on the floor. And very cross indeed.

Where did that take place? Callaghan again places the event in the “American Club” and refers to the billiard room and the bare floor, but now we have a new contender for the location: a gym on the rue du Vaugirard.

A Guide to Hemingway’s Paris by John Leland places this particular event at the Gymnase George at 33, rue du Vaugirard, citing a biography of Fitzgerald by Sarah Mayfield. Leland even calls it this spot “the American Club,” although I don’t think anyone else called it that at the time. It was certainly closer to Hemingway’s apartment, but much farther from the Falstaff Bar and Le Sélect. And it was a proper gym, whereas Callaghan’s description suggests a less well-equipped space. I think Mayfield and Leland are wrong.

What does it matter? Who cares? It matters because I am putting together a walking tour. Again. This one is focused on Montparnasse in the 1920s. I feel that if I am going to show someone a building and say, “This is where Callaghan clocked Hemingway,” I need to know what I am talking about. Oddly enough, most biographers of Hemingway do not bother to identify the location, except for the one I’m fairly sure is wrong.

This story has an odd coda, which Norman discovered as I obsessed over American clubs in Paris. After the death of Morley Callaghan in 1990, an antiquarian bookseller in Toronto whom we know, David Mason, received some letters pertaining to the fight, written by Hemingway and Fitzgerald. He advertised them for sale and published a catalogue.

Mason catalogue

But one night in 1993, someone broke into his shop and stole the letters (as well as other valuable material) from the safe. Two years later, a suspect was arrested, but he died in jail – either a suicide or a homicide. The letters have never been recovered, but Mason remembers them.

In an undated, never-before-published follow up [letter to Callaghan], Hemingway threw down the gauntlet.

“I honestly believe that with small gloves I could knock you out inside of about five two-minute rounds,” Hemingway taunted, adding later, “So if you want us to disarm let me know.”

“Astonishing,” Mason says today. “Just astonishing. This is one of the most stunning Hemingway letters, in which he basically tells Callaghan, ‘In an alley, I could clean your clock.’ What kind of a person acts like that? Especially one of the greatest writers in American literature. And he’s acting like a 7-year-old.”***

So which alley did Hemingway have in mind? No idea. It won’t be on the walking tour.

Text by Philippa Campsie.

The walking tour is available from VoiceMap. It is an audio guide that works with GPS on an iPhone or Android device. 


* Quoted in Cameron Allen, The History of the American Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Paris, 1815-1980 (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2012).

**Nelcya Delanoë, Le Raspail Vert: L’American Center à Paris: Une historie des avant-gardes franco-américaines (Paris: Seghers, 1994).

*** Toronto Star article by Bill Schiller.

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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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