I spent a week recently cat-sitting for friends in an area of the 13th arrondissement known as La Butte-aux-Cailles. The name can mean quail hill, but it’s also a part of Paris that belonged to a landowner named Pierre Caille in the 16th century. More people think of it as the plural than the singular, of the birds rather than the person who owned the land. So quail hill it is.
What it is, quail hill, is a small neighborhood within a neighborhood that conveys more than the geographical space it makes up. It’s an idea of a neighborhood. That idea is one of resistance – the spirit of 1968, the spirit of the Commune of 1870. And the spirit of letting your hair down – to judge by the large number of people smoking in clusters as night falls outside dingy bars on the Rue de La Butte-aux-Cailles.
But that doesn’t make it any more special than a lot of other streets or neighborhoods of Paris or anywhere where people get together, smoke on the street and make a little noise. What La Butte-aux-Cailles has is a determined hipness. The area reminds me a little of parts of New York’s Lower East Side. The difference is that much of the iconography in the Butte-aux-Cailles references old left-wing revolutionaries, where the Lower East Side today evokes in a only the most glancing way a tenement history.
It comes down to the same thing, however: an evocation that’s a nod to a past rather than an actual engagement with it. It’s as if the neighborhood of La Butte-aux-Cailles were wearing a Che Guevera t-shirt, or a Chairman Mao cap. Though here the shirt would probably have an image of Léo Ferré, a noted anarchist songwriter whose image appears on walls here and there in the neighborhood. But this is normal, isn’t it? Using symbols as fleeting reminders of something we may only half remember, or half know, to center us somehow or to add color to how we choose to remember our experience?
La Butte-aux-Cailles maintains a village atmosphere of low-rise houses and apartment buildings. Graffiti is tolerated, even encouraged – such as one street mural showing Tintin, clad in a rose-colored jacket, in a near embrace with Captain Haddock, another character from the Tintin graphic novels. It doesn’t make for a typically Parisian street scene, but its appeal comes from its not jibing with the proscribed French sense of order.
The Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles where it crosses the rue des Cinq Diamants is where the area has its heart: old buildings, narrow streets and arty boutiques alongside popular drinking spots, upscale restaurants and chic patisseries. I’d stayed in the neighborhood once before several years ago, when these same friends whose cats I was minding were vacationing. I’d flown into Paris to attend a wedding.
I was glad to be back to rediscover it. I was also glad to see another arrondissement than the ones where I spend most of my days now. Back when I began spending a few months a year in Paris, I would swap apartments, which allowed me to discover various parts of the city. Luckily, I’m less of a vagabond now. For the last few years, I’ve been staying for a month or two at a time at the apartment of my friends Bob and Loraine, so I’ve in a way become a part of the 17th arrondissement. Still, I was happy to reacquaint myself with another area that I generally just walk through to and from the metro, rather than inhabit.
The character of this part of the 13th is quite different from the 17th arrondissement. The 13th feels more youthful, but also more pointedly aware of itself than the area around Parc Monceau, at least to me. La Butte-aux-Cailles is proud of its symbols, just as the area around Parc Monceau seems proud of its beaux-arts buildings and its wide avenues that could have served as models for a Caillebotte street scene. But those are just my impressions – others might see faux-hipster dilapidation and bourgeois complacency. I was structuring my memories differently.
On my first night in the funkier Butte-aux-Cailles I ate dinner at an unprepossessing restaurant called Le Temps de Cerises, which gives you an idea of how the locals cling to ideas of the past. A similar restaurant in some American city might call itself Yankee Doodle (or perhaps Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death).
“Le Temps des cerises” is a song that was popular during the Commune of 1870-71. The title, the time of the cherries (or cherry time), written just before the Paris Commune, became widely sung during the Commune after new verses were added. It’s about what life is like after a revolution changes everything.
The Paris Commune was a brief violent period when a socialist-revolutionary government led Paris after the collapse of the Second French Empire and the defeat of Napoleon III, and during the war with Prussia. It involved many violent clashes, much destruction of property and loss of life.
The restaurant named Le Temps des cerises, however, was peaceful, if animated. In walking past it I’d noticed that the daily specials included paupiettes de dinde, or turkey bundles (a paupiette is a little package of thin cutlets of meat with a filling of vegetables). So, I thought I’d give the place a try. It had a well-worn look bordering on shabby, but it also had a lot of people at crowded tables who seemed to be enjoying themselves under the scribbled slogans of earlier revolutionary times, and the faded photos of lefty singer-songwriters.
The servers at the restaurant seemed as they’d recently been or would soon be homeless, or at least former roadies who never quite kicked the heroin habit. They had the air of people who’ve lived tough, eventful lives and were nonplussed by whatever fickle demands a restaurant client might have. They were efficient, pleasant if not quite warm, but the paupiettes de dinde were actually quite good. In any event, as I dined I created a mental sketch of their career trajectories that ended with them working here.
I realized, however, as I watched them at their work, that I was ascribing to them something symbolic without knowing a thing about them except their appearance and manner of interacting with the clientele.
Because I was sitting in a restaurant whose name evoked a terrible time in French history, I assumed the servers were socially engaged revolutionary types rather than experienced waiters who might be too busy earning a living to devote time to upending the government. But what did I know? Maybe they were part-time anarchists. They for their part could have considered me as just another American with a passable French accent who was passing through this part of town absorbing the atmosphere of another age. Which isn’t too far from the truth, but which isn’t the whole story either. Though if they thought of me at all, beyond someone who’d ordered the daily special, their assessment would probably have been more accurate than the stories I was telling myself about them.
But then none of us ever has the whole story, so we make up what we want. Which may be why symbols are so important in places like La Butte-aux-Cailles, or elsewhere.
For example, there’s a bust of the singer Dalida in Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement, where she lived. The statue is well-polished from the hands of countless admirers caressing her bronze bosom, as if by doing so they remind themselves of a particular moment in life when her songs meant something special. Her symbolic presence is real enough.
The same might be true in La Butte-aux-Cailles. No one is still around from when the Paris Commune raged, but France still has a sense that change can only come from revolution. You’re not likely to revolt over the plat du jour at a homey restaurant with grizzled waiters, but on seeing on its walls the slogans of a revolutionary age, you may be reminded that little remains the same over time, and that nothing is ever exactly what it seems.