(Famous Theophile Steinlen poster, “Tournee du Chat Noir,” 1898, honoring the Black Cat cabaret in Pigalle, Paris.)
I found, in traveling, how important it is to know the character of city neighborhoods before one travels through them…But, as with so much in life, I learned it after the fact.
During the first part of the “Ireland/Paris Tour,” we ambled leisurely along Ireland’s country roads, taking in pastoral vistas, broken up occasionally with villages whose people were our consideration: the way they lived; their social interaction; what they did for a living. But because I feared a steady diet of “too quiet,” I added a segment of bustling city life to our trip for variety; as such, we flew to Paris, that citadel of adventure.
We stayed in a modest hotel each night, one whose most memorable feature was an open, brass elevator ( similar to one I recall from a Doris Day/Cary Grant movie) my younger one enjoyed operating. At 6, she caged us in and pushed the buttons for “up” or “down,” as we watched the floor levels disappear before us. In Europe, kids could readily perform jobs they’d be disallowed in America.
We began each day at a table off the lobby. There we enjoyed flaky croissants laced with jam, washing them down with Café Americaine for me (I never got used to those demitasse cups of espresso), while the girls had hot chocolate. At that early hour, we leisurely pored over city maps and tour brochures, determining Metro routes (the Parisian subway system), with my older daughter using her geometry skills (shortest distance between two points) as she plotted corordinates for destinations.
This is how we traveled to the Louvre, the Cathedrale of Notre Dame de Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Seine and its riverbank walkways, Versailles Palace, the Latin Quarter.
One such prominent destination was the famed arts district of Montmartre (Mount of the Martyr, where the patron saint of France was decapitated). There, we planned to ascend the many steps to the Basilica de Sacre Coeur, to look out over the city. We’d join the visiting throngs who made that pilgrimage each day.
We took the Metro to the northern end of the city and got off at Pigalle, a neighborhood teeming with tourists bent on visiting the little cafes, as well as former studios of Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh.
But, as we three ascended the steps from the subway, into the late afternoon sunshine, we took a wrong turn… so easy to do in a city. After 100 yards or so, a young man passed us, cradling his bloodied arm… his sleeve in tatters. I considered him a random event, a casualty of the city. I didn’t know things would get much worse.
I led the way, focusing forward, striding with purpose, as I do so often in cities, avoiding eye contact with passersby. My girls kept to either side of me… one a 16 year old… the other 6. I was unaware of the shops on either side of us, never realizing we headed knee-deep into perversion.
Suddenly my older daughter sidled up beside me and asked, “Mom, have you noticed what we’re walking through? It’s really bad. Look at these shops.” At that, I cast a sideways glance and what I saw took my breath away. On both sides of the narrow street, sunk down a few steps from street level, in low-ceilinged, cave-like doorways, evil-looking men beckoned, holding graphic pictures. When I made eye contact with them, they brightened and motioned me closer.
My 6 year old’s eyes were the size of saucers!
At that realization, I gathered up my girls, held their hands tight in my grip, as we hurriedly retraced our steps to point of entry. Much later, I discovered from those in the know that we’d inadvertently entered “Pig Alley,” a district renamed by US servicemen in World War II, for its plethora of sex shops, peep shows, strip clubs, cabarets, and x-rated extravaganza.
On a loftier note, much of the district of Pigalle is celebrated for its bohemian nature; as such, it’s been the subject of grand art. Marvelous stage productions had their origin in this quarter (the famous Moulin Rouge cabaret operated there), and great artists made their home there. We’d just found ourselves in the seamier end of that quarter.
All because I took a wrong turn off the subway…..
In travel, Biddy learned that preparation (knowing the territory) is key. One mustn’t merely access the maps; talking to others is vital. Paris wasn’t the only place that taught me this. I’d get us into serious trouble on a mountaintop in Spain…………..
(Famed Moulin Rouge, gathering nightspot for artists, authors, celebrities, Pigalle district, Paris)