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

First we take Manhattan, then we take Paree!

I bought my first Eloise book from a secondhand bookstall at school when I was 9 or 10. It was Kay Thompson’s Eloise in Moscow, and I was captivated by Hilary Knight’s illustrations, including a fold-out view of a wintry Kremlin. A year or so later, probably in the same place, I bought Eloise at Christmastime, and discovered her natural habitat – the Plaza Hotel in New York.

By then I felt I was getting too old for picture books, particularly ones featuring rambunctious six-year-olds – I did not know then that the books were also intended for grown-ups. So I didn’t read the first in the series, Eloise, let alone Eloise in Paris, when I was young. But recently, at another secondhand bookstall (a more upscale one, at the Antiquarian Booksellers Fair at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario), I found Eloise: The Ultimate Edition, with all four original books and background about the writer and illustrator. I snapped it up.

Eloise_coverNow I have been to Paris with the irrepressible Eloise (not to mention her companions, the long-suffering Nanny, Weenie the pug dog, and Skipperdee her pet turtle), and what a whirlwind it was.

From the moment they get on to the airplane (“Sabena is the only airline that will allow you to travel with a turtle”), I was transported back to 1957, when air travel was still a luxury. Eloise and her Nanny sleep in berths (like the ones I have used on overnight trains in Europe). The other passengers are fashionably dressed. They land in Brussels and take a helicopter to Paris.

If this sounds like an unusual way to get to Paris, it is. But it was the outcome of a promotional deal with Sabena – Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight received free transatlantic tickets in return for a plug for the airline, well before the expresssion “product placement” had been coined.*

In Paris, Eloise’s party is met at the airport by the charming Koki, a chauffeur employed by Eloise’s permanently absent – but clearly wealthy – mother. Koki drives a Renault Dauphine (possibly another bit of product placement).

RelaisBissonEloise stays at the Relais Bisson at No. 37, Quai des Grands Augustins. The hotel is no longer there, but in the 1950s it was considered quite a chic place to stay. Again, Kay Thompson had wangled a free stay in return for depicting the 25-room, elevator-less hotel in the book. Hilary Knight drew it from life, with its central balcony opening towards the Seine (he did take some liberties with the location of the main door). He also shows the “Librairie Académique Perrin – Éditeur” next door at No. 35: a venerable publishing house, also vanished, but a going concern at the time. He and Kay also depicted the real owners – Monsieur and Madame Dupuis – much as they were.

This is what the building looks like today in Google Street View.


Interestingly, as soon as the characters land on European soil, the main background colour in the illustrations changes from Plaza pink to Bisson blue.

Eloise, Nanny, and the menagerie occupy the central room with its distinctive balcony, where they are shown having breakfast in the morning. At night, Eloise leans out to say bon soir to Notre Dame; the hotel was known for its stunning views across the river to the islands and the cathedral.

Eloise is in fine form as she takes in the sites. She causes havoc in the Place de l’Etoile traffic circle, leaps into the fountains in the Place de la Concorde, and nearly loses Weenie and Skipperdee at the coat check at the Louvre. They shop in flea markets (Eloise collects champagne corks) and on the rue St-Honoré. Eloise is fitted for a frock at Christian Dior by the great man himself, with his assistant and eventual successor, a sombre-looking Yves St-Laurent, in attendance.

Like all tourists, they walk endlessly. “Here’s what you have to do in Paris keep moving a lot,” she notes. “There are absolutely nothing but streets in Paris.” “Il y a beaucoup de cobblestones in Paris and some of our feet are getting round.” And being Eloise, she doesn’t just walk, she skibbles, she sklathes, she zaps. At night they take footbaths. She also notes, “There are very few places where you cannot take a chien.” Fortunately for Weenie.

Eloise in ParisThey return to the Plaza (and the colour changes back from blue to pink) with 114 pieces of luggage (having left New York with a mere 37). Eloise immediately summons Room Service to order watermelons, champagne, and seltzer water. As one does.

Some of the inspiration for Eloise in Paris had come from the author’s own trip to Paris in 1956, to film parts of the movie Funny Face with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. Kay Thompson played the part of Maggie Prescott, the magazine editor famous for her “Think Pink” campaign. Funny Face includes many of the places featured in Eloise in Paris – from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower. However, during the film, the cast stayed at the larger and more luxurious Hotel Raphael, which did have an elevator. Koki, who appears in the book as Eloise’s chauffeur, is apparently a real person. He was the driver assigned to the cast of Funny Face.

FunnyFace2Kay Thompson was a larger-than-life character, just like her fictional creation Eloise (a sort of imaginary friend/alter ego, with a name that may be based on Kay’s own middle name, Louise). Kay was a handful as a little girl; because she was plain compared to her two pretty sisters, she would misbehave to get attention. She became a singer and vocal coach who worked with Judy Garland, and she once had a nightclub act with four brothers (of which one, Andy Williams, was rumoured to be her lover).

But if Eloise’s voice and antics belong to Kay, her appearance belongs to Hilary Knight, the artist. His relationship with Kay Thompson was often fraught (she could be very difficult to work with, and he was woefully underpaid for his work), but you would never know from the vigour and bounce of his illustrations. The pictures range from clever vignettes to landscapes full of detail – the man demonstrating wind-up toys in front of Fouquet’s, a wall poster advertising a Foujita exhibit at the Galerie Paul Petrides, the children walking with a nun in the Bois de Boulogne (perhaps a nod to Eloise’s rival Madeline). The picture of Eloise returning through customs with her new acquisitions (“We had absolutely nothing to declare”) is a masterpiece.

Knight drew some inspiration from the misbehaving schoolgirls in Ronald Searle’s St Trinians series, as well as Norman Thelwell’s pony-mad little terrors, among other influences, but Eloise is an original. He was able to translate Kay Thompson’s imaginary creation and make her memorable and wholly herself.

Eloise with baguetteKay Thompson died in 1998, but Hilary Knight is still drawing and Eloise is only one of his creations in a long and successful career as a professional illustrator.** His portrait of Eloise (actually the second of two, since the first was stolen) still hangs in the Plaza. Say bonjour when you are next in town.

EloisePlazaText by Philippa Campsie

* Sam Irvin, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, Simon and Schuster, 2010.

** I particularly loved the illustrations he did for the books of Peg Bracken (notably the I Hate to Cook Book).

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A Doomed Attempt at Out-Eiffelling Eiffel

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Even before its inauguration on March 31, 1889, the Eiffel Tower was world famous. Loved by some, reviled by others, it would be the world’s tallest building until New York’s Chrysler Building took the lead in 1930.

Of course, as Paris’s biggest rival for leading European city, London wanted its own tower, even bigger than the one in Paris. So a group of Londoners planned one.

Book Title Page Great Tower of London

The Tower Company Limited was created to carry out the project and offered first and second prizes of 500 and 250 Guineas. The driving force was Sir Edward W. Watkin, Member of Parliament, railroad entrepreneur, and the man behind a failed attempt to build a tunnel under the English Channel for railway traffic. Sir Edward personified the “Railway Mania” of the time.

As Chairman of the Metropolitan Railway, Sir Edward wanted to increase business by creating new attractions—be they amusement parks or suburban dwellings—that people could reach by train. So he purchased a 280-acre tract of land near the hamlet of Wembley in rural Middlesex. In anticipation of massive crowds, he had a new high-capacity railway station built at Wembley and planned to equip the park there with artificial lakes for boating, a waterfall, ornamental gardens, and cricket and football pitches. But the big draw was to be a tower taller and grander than the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

On November 1, 1889, the company issued specifications and asked for designs and cost estimates for “a Tower of not less than 1,200 feet in height” by the end of February 1890. Sixty-eight proposals came from the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Australia, Sweden, Italy, Austria, Turkey, and Canada.

The specifications stated that “the structure must be so designed as to resist wind pressure, sudden storms, and be guarded as regards lightning.” (The Eiffel Tower was an open lattice structure which readily allowed wind to pass through, thereby reducing the load on the structure and its foundations.) Some designers paid attention to these concerns. Some did not. At the same time, the tower was expected to be a money-maker.

Here we have the winner, which was to rise to 1,200 feet from an octagonal base 300 feet in diameter. It included a hotel with 90 bedrooms. The designers, Messrs. A.D. Stewart, J.M. MacLaren, and W. Dunn, claimed that “the plan being octagonal, the greatest stability with economy is obtained. An octagon affords a nearly equal resistance to bending in all directions.”


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Charles Baillairgé, City Engineer of Quebec City, had the most novel approach to dealing with wind pressure. His 1,600-foot circular design was fully enclosed and was expected to withstand most winds. But, as he put it, “The factor of safety would be increased if the glazing were to be blown out in a hurricane.” Never mind any personal injury from glass shards being blown about. Another advantage he claimed was the “capability of being taken down in sections—each section being useful for other purposes. All bolted together instead of being riveted.”

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The American Architect and Building News selected his design for special note. “For thorough-going ugliness the tower with the motto ‘Circumferentially, Radially and Diagonally Bound’ bears away the palm. It resembles a series of reels of cotton of gradually decreasing size placed one above the other, and surmounted with a wax taper from a Christmas tree.” Baillairgé was a brilliant engineer and designer, but this was not his finest moment.

S. Fisher of London offered the most versatile design. As with modern sweatshirts, it came in four sizes: S, M, L, XL and could rise as high as 2,000 feet at a weight of 312,550 tons.

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In addition to 12 hydraulic elevators, Fisher suggested the Tower Company Limited “run a locomotive engine and train half-way up the spiral gradient. The gradient would begin at 1 in 20 and gradually increase to 1 in 10.”

Other designers also suggested locomotives, one even trained mules, but none so quintessentially Victorian as Max Am Ende’s gothic tower, which featured “a Spiral Railway, worked by steam.” In order to maintain the decorum so highly prized by Victorians, the railway would offer first-, second-, and third-class carriages.

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O.C.D. Ross also submitted a gothic-looking edifice “designed to differ as much as possible from the Eiffel Tower.” Indeed, no one would claim any resemblance.

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And surely no one could confuse the design below with the Eiffel Tower. At 2, 296 feet, this design by Albert Brunel of Rouen was the tallest submitted. Brunel (no relation – as far as we know – to Isambard Kingdom Brunel) suggested it be built of granite. It probably could not have been completed, because the granite at the lower levels would not have been able to support the weight of the rest of the structure. Albert Brunel gave no details as to what it was to contain or the source of his inspiration, although Imperial Rome may have been in his thoughts.

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Design No. 17 from J. Horton of Copley, near Halifax, Yorkshire, tapered from a 180-foot diameter to 42 feet as it rose to a height of 1,200 feet. It looks like a giant screw that has had its tip blunted.

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Another rose to 1,900 feet, but designer J. W. Couchman provides no information on its facilities.

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The design by J.H.M. Harrison-Vasey would, at 1,820 feet, be hard to miss and not much of it appears to have escaped decoration. He eschewed elevators and proposed “a spiral road of about 2½ miles under which a descending Railway is constructed, the incline of both being 1 in 20.” Perhaps the most intriguing feature was the “captive parachute to hold 4 persons, led in guides…fitted in one of the corner towers, and regulated by a brake.” He mentions no restaurants or refreshment stands, but surely visitors who had walked to the observatory floor at the 1,780-foot level would have needed something to quaff while enjoying the view and preparing for the descent.

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The design by Henry Rose and E.J. Edwards seems cluttered and lacking the transparency of the Eiffel Tower. At 1,274 feet it was nowhere near the tallest proposed structure, but provided more detail than many others. There were “Otis” lifts, two 12-foot wide staircases and “a two-track spiral Electric Railway, gradient 1 in 6…which would travel at 5 miles per hour, and 1,600 passengers per hour could be conveyed by it.”

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Visitors would find no shortage of amenities: “This tower is provided with the usual Restaurants, Offices, Shops. There are 6 Bungalows on the 3rd stage and a Photographic room. On the 4th stage are 4 Clubhouses, proposed to be let [rented] to London Clubs, with stage below. On the 5th stage, 2 large Dining or Reception Rooms to be let for private entertainments. On the 6th or top stage there are 4 look-out Bays, 1 Meteorological Room, Photographic Room, small Café, and a room for a Siren Foghorn to be used in conjunction with a Phonograph for advertising purposes. A powerful Electric Searchlight would be fixed in the Lantern, and a projector provided.”

The winning design had included a hotel with 90 guest rooms. But Design No. 42, which bore the name “Utility,” at a height of 1,400 feet, offered Bachelor’s Chambers. With “400 Rooms at a rental of £25 per annum, [it] would produce £10,000 a year.”

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However, it is likely that the greatest revenue would have come from a rather clunky looking building expected to rise to 2,007 ft.

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Proposed by the Thames Iron Works and Shipbuilding Co., it was clearly inspired by the Eiffel Tower, but also by “the Monoliths of Ancient Egypt.” It was to be “constructed out of small parts symmetrically arranged, which is a less costly and more convenient method than adopting gigantic parts. The design was intended “to provide for an aerial colony.” That is, it provided for more than the needs of daily visitors. After listing the many features of the lower levels, which included gardens, restaurants, a museum, a library, and international stores, the proponents announced, “After this comes the Residential part of the Tower, viz: The Hotel, and a Club, also Mansions, Flats and Chambers, the smokeless, fogless atmosphere of which should command a rent proportionate to their Alpine altitude.” The rooms would be heated by electricity.

One of the more visually intriguing designs came from “Neloah” at 224, Stockwell Road, London, S.W. Unfortunately the only information that came with the designs was that it would be 1,200 feet high and was “to be built in concrete.” Concrete was at the time still a largely experimental material for large structures, so “Neloah” was either ahead of his time or out of his depth.

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Although construction actually started on the winning design, a review article in The American Architect and Building News (Vol. XXVIII, No. 755, June 14, 1890, pp. 161–163) held out little hope for the project. First, it had to be an attractive structure, for “there will be no hiding it. [An ugly structure] will expose its forlorn height to every passer-by, and advertise its own failure in the most effectual fashion possible.” Alas, “in reviewing the various designs, we must frankly admit that none excels the Eiffel Tower in beauty and grace.”

But the biggest problem was the question of how it would attract visitors. The Eiffel Tower had been part of an international Exposition that made Paris “the focus of all the pleasure-takers of the world, and was filled with crowds having time on their hands, and money in their pockets which they were anxious to spend.” The London Tower Company was not associated with such a drawing card and risked becoming the kind of attraction for which “immense numbers will postpone the journey for the convenient season which so seldom comes.”

There also seemed to be foundation problems with the marshy ground underneath the site, as well as financial problems as investors lost enthusiasm. Construction halted when the tower had risen to only 47 metres. The company went bankrupt in 1901. For a few years, the incomplete structure was known as Watkins Folly or The London Stump. It was blown up in 1904 and sold for scrap.

But that is not the end of the story. Wembley was chosen as the site for the 1923 British Empire Exhibition, for which the Wembley Stadium was built. In 2000, during the rebuilding of the stadium, the concrete foundations of The London Stump were rediscovered.

By that time London was far ahead of Paris in the tall buildings category, but nobody ever out-Eiffelled Eiffel.

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Text by Norman Ball. First image: author’s collection. Final image: courtesy Roger Dorton. All other illustrations from the Public Domain Review.

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