The Story Behind the Strangeness: Explaining the Inexplicable in Paris
- Published on Tuesday, 21 February 2012 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
Where There's a Riddle
There's a Reason
“Aren't you going to put a lock on your scooter?” “Are you kidding? A lock would be valuable — somebody might steal it!”
In the course of scouring the streets of Paris looking for material that qualifies as Ironique (see inadvertently funny shop signs Part I and Part II), I sometimes come across something that makes me say to myself, “Gee, it'd be great to find out the story behind that.” And then I reply to myself, “But it would be even better to make it up.”
Take, for example, this emblem on a building at the corner of Rue de Wattignies and Rue de Fécamp in the 12th:
Dorin is a perfume maker, still in business today, and it started out, as it so proudly proclaims here, as a “Supplier to the Court.” But not just any court – the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, less than a decade before certain events occurred that would make applying “a little dab behind each ear” something of a reach for them.
Halt! This is a punchline checkpoint: Louis XVI – ears – reach. Got it? All right, you may proceed.
Nonetheless, I'm sure the House of Dorin had a good nine years. The royal household used a lot of fragrance. In fact, according to one source, the famous conversation that made the queen infamous actually went like this:
“Your highness, the peasants have no cologne.”
“Let them take baths!”
“Hah! Good one. But seriously, what should be done? Oh, and they don't have much bread either.”
While we're on the subject of plaques, here's one in Saint Gervais, the church behind the Hôtel de Ville:
So they slapped up a slab of stone and carved the names of their parish priests (curés) on it dating back to 1802. Fair enough. Notice how much room is left to add more names. Shows good foresight.
Or does it? Take a closer look at the last line:
Somehow I doubt that Father Lainé is still serving up the wine and biscuits on Sunday morning. If he assumed his duties in 1948, he could still be alive today, but he'd have to be at least in his late eighties. So what happened?
My guess is that he didn't retire until 2000 or 2001, making it impossible to complete his entry correctly. The discussions at the church board meetings must go something like this:
“OK, so it's resolved: we'll move choir practice to Tuesdays and the cross dancing classes to Thursdays. Now, is there any old business?“
“Well, there is that problem about the plaque.”
“Yes, of course. Anything new to report?”
“The stone carver says there's no way to change the 19 into a 20, and chipping it out entirely might break the slab.”
“Is there such a thing as marble putty?”
“Couldn't we just fill in Lainé's end date as 1999?”
“Sure, if you don't mind engraving a lie – a mortal sin – in solid rock and spending an extra eon in purgatory.”
“Let's face it — we need a miracle to solve this one.”
“Who's the patron of poor planning?”
“Saint Bristol of Wasilla.”
“Who? Oh, to hell with it! All in favor of tabling this question to next month's meeting?”
Now then, from decoration to infrastructure. Consider this wall at the back of a garden on Rue Clauzel:
Why all the different heights and angles? As far as I can see there is only one possible explanation: somehow my great aunt Hilda, even though she never left Illinois, was teleported to France to supervise the construction of this wall...
“Oh, I'm not fussy – just make it as high as the gate. That's fine. Go ahead. No, wait! I want it higher. Higher, a little more... That's good. Keep going. No, wait! Up another foot. Now! Okay, there. Keep going. No, wait!...”
I see a parallel between the varying dimensions of that wall and the varying dimensions of these three houses on Rue Trousseau:
I can picture the scene:
Three architects are drinking in a bar.
First architect: “Hey! I'm gonna build a house with eight-foot ceilings!”
Second architect: “Oh yeah? Well I'm gonna build a house with nine-foot ceilings!”
Third architect: “That's nothing!...”
Speaking of getting loaded, get a load of this:
This photo was taken this year in a courtyard in a high-rent neighborhood (Madeleine-Opéra). What I thought was an old winch for a long-disused warehouse or workshop turns out to be the pulley mechanism for a hotel's elevator.
Important reminder: this is the 21st century. Notice the beam tacked slip-shoddily onto the roof, poorly protected by cheap sheet metal. And notice the cable and counterweight, not protected by anything, hanging down into the courtyard, exposed to the elements day and night, winter and summer.
This must have been the DIY job from hell:
“You see? I told you we didn't need to hire some la-di-da certified contractor just to install a little elevator! I bought this kit from a guy at the flea market and put it in myself. Saved a thousand euros! But I've got all this cable left over. And I didn't know where to put this long heavy thing, so I left it out. Anyway, get in and give it a try!”
As I'm sure my readers will be shocked to learn, not all things anomalous, idiotic and French are Parisian. This photo was taken in the Provençal village of Roussillon:
Photo cropped from a well-composed photo by an actual photographer. In fact, a superb photographer: Marion Gold.
Obviously, this is a town with two things:
1) Lots of foreign visitors, and
2) No budget to pay a professional translator.
The symbol at the top means “no parking” and sur toute la place actually means “anywhere on this square.” But that's not exactly what the English version says. And the German ist nicht so heiss either.
I can hear the mayor saying, “Why hire a translator for four lousy words? My daughter gets pretty good grades in English...”
Historical note: This photo dates from 2000. I was in Roussillon again last year and the sign, to my intense dismay, is no longer there. And wouldn't you know it? There were cars parked all over the place.
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© 2012 Paris Update