What my landlady lacks in height, she makes up for in energy. When I met her for a promised tour of the neighbourhood, her kitten-heeled sling backs brought her up to a mighty 5’1’’. They also powered a three-hour purposeful march through the history of the Marais and Pletzl areas of Paris, stories of her childhood, book advice, where I was to buy the best baked goods and even the best gay cruising spots.
After a nearly 60 years in the area she knows the labyrinth like streets of the Marais well and she had a story for every corner, every shop. She darted down alleys, into courtyards, I was lucky to keep up. I was also lucky to come out alive. She says she doesn’t use her white stick because she claims it makes her a target and invites unwanted help. I felt like a target as she literally led us blind into the middle of crowds and into the middle of traffic, but always on course.
‘They say that I am the lady who sees everything,’ she said of the would-be shoplifters at store she owns with her husband. ‘I stand and move my eyes around the store. But, they could steal a suitcase from in front of me and I would not know.’
She said she hates what she has become. She was a surgeon before her sight started to deteriorate and I am sure her life has changed in innumerable ways that a sighted person cannot understand. However, as with the would-be thieves, how one approaches the world has a lot to do with how people respond, and we were on a mission.
The village of Saint Paul (off rue St Paul) was her first top tip. A series of courtyards filled with cute antiques shops, artist’s workshops and cafes. The weekend seems to be the best time to catch the action at St Paul. We could only window shop as nothing was open at 11.30 on a Friday morning. By way of explanation my guide said this was because they were run by ‘BoBos’ who didn’t feel the need to get up and do a day’s work like the rest of us. She assured me that this was an affectionate term and she was a fan of this area, but according to my landlady this group seemed to be at the root of many of the changes to the neighbourhood that she chronicled during our walk.
Bourgeois Bohemians are just the latest of many groups that have seen this neighbourhood change over hundreds of years. The aristocrats who first developed the area with beautiful mansions moved out in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and working people gradually moved into their palaces. A Jewish community has been in the area for hundreds of years and there are still kosher stores, bakeries and Jewish bookstores.
She showed me where many Jewish stores used to be, now trendy clothing stores. You can see some of this history as original signs have been conserved when the spaces have been converted. Of the stores that remain, the L’As du Felafel (34 rue des Rosiers) restaurant and the Sacha Finkelsztajn (27 rue des Rosiers) bakery were favourites.
She remembered the neighbourhood of her childhood, where it felt like a real community and people looked after each other. She said that her family did not have a lot of money, but talked of living in a house that had a grand sweeping staircase and French doors between rooms with high ceilings. With the new wave of people coming into the area, house prices went up and people who had lived here all of their lives could no longer afford to do so.
Even with all of the changes, she would not live anywhere else. The renaissance courtyard of the Hotel de Sully (62 rue Saint-Antoine) and the Musee Carnavalet (23 rue de Sévigne), a free museum dedicated to the history of Paris, are some of her favourite places in the world.
‘Everything is here,’ she said. However, she recommends coming on weekday mornings before all of the BoBos wake up and you can’t move for people.