It’s something I learned many years ago and I still believe it. If a door’s not locked, or if the lock is manageable, and no one stops me forcibly, I open it and walk in. Thus, you see, my love of courtyards, alleys, little passageways where for all I know I have no business being, side entrances, holes in the wall, and not just the metaphorical ones. Perhaps it’s because they are hidden and, often enough, forbidden, that I like to get in, take a look around, see what is not easy to see, not for public consumption, take it in and go on my way and about my business.
And usually I go with nothing more than the memory of the place I have discovered, an image stashed somewhere in the tangle of my brain: it’s better, most of the time, to take a mental—or perhaps an emotional—picture and see if I can rifle the store and find it. Not always, no, not always, not this time. The iron gate blocking the entrance to the courtyard is old and rusty. It has a few holes and the two doors don’t always line up just right, so I had seen the building, at least the top of it, through the doors and was intrigued, but the lock wasn’t cooperating the first time and Boulevard Voltaire in the 11e right across from Place Léon Blum is always busy and not the best place in Paris to fiddle with a lock, so I walked away. Two days later, the door was unlocked, and in I went.
The building is a leftover from the nineteenth century, probably no older, and one of thousands like it, hidden in the center of blocks and used for God knows what in its day. In some places I have found the remains of tramway storage, records of lumberyards and sawmills, barns that may have been used for small-scale dairy-farming, vegetable patches. This one looked, and still does, like a small factory or workshop—impossible to tell from the evidence—but it doesn’t look like someone’s house.
But then there’s what I immediately called all the claptrap, the great jumble of chairs, plants, umbrellas, a rocking horse, tables, shadow boxes, bits and pieces of stuff. Clutter, sure enough, but domestic clutter, the jetsam of a householder, a resident, not what you’d expect to find outside a workshop, no stacks of lumber or pipes or used tires. And there was no one, not once, to ask, to tell me what this meant. So I took the pictures and left.
It must have been my fifth or sixth visit, a warm day in July, when I wandered in again and there, perched amid all the stuff, were two ladies drinking tea. I asked them if they knew anything about the building. “Yes,” said the one to my left, “It’s my house.” Oh? “Yes, my house, I have lived here for twenty years.” Do you know the building’s history, when it was built, what had gone on there, I asked? “No.” Any ideas? “No.”
I have no idea if she was telling the truth or just didn’t feel like telling it to me. It does not matter. The shed or building or chantier is there with all its preposterous clutter and jumble, just off Voltaire. It’s not hard to find.
Text and photos © Joseph Lestrange
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