I have the most interesting experiences on the days when I have my French conversation class. Take today, for example: I was proud of myself for getting out of the apartment in good time, taking the shortest route to class and remembering the door code to the building. I was pumped – I’d already gone for a run (in the rain no less), started the laundry and planned out which gallery I would visit later in the day. “No doubt about it” I thought to myself as I climbed the stairs to class, “I’m on my game today”. Confidence brimming, I opened the door to find…an empty room. It turns out I was over an hour early for class. New plan required.
Undeterred by the outcome of my over-preparedness I decided to explore the immediate area, maybe do some shopping or grab a coffee. The area I was in is called ‘Sentier’. It’s in the 2nd Arrondisement and has historically been known as a multicultural garment and textile district. It strikes me as one of those “in-between” areas: some spots are seedy and questionable, although rents are apparently rising and little boutiques and cafés are moving in. It’s also quite close to one of my favourite seedy streets – St Denis (which you may recall from a previous post) – although I’m not sure if that helps or hurts its general image!
Anyway, there I stood with a little over an hour to kill. I started walking up the street with no particular destination in mind. I wandered this way and that, turning almost at random my sole criterion being to avoid the major streets. Eventually I found myself in the middle of a small park on a small road called Place de Caire or “Cairo Place”. Cairo? Paris? Clearly Napoleon had something to do with this. My curiosity was peaked. Looking around me I noticed the sign to a small passageway: Passage de Caire. Ah-ha, a rabbit hole, how could I not explore?
It turns out that Passage de Caire opened in 1798 during the time of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Parisians were crazy for everything Eastern, hence the name. In fact, above the doorway where I entered are three faces of the Egyptian goddess Hothar, recognizable by her cow’s ears.
The Passage itself was built on the spot where both the Convent of the Sisters’ of God and their adjacent cemetery stood. In fact, some of the tombstones were even used to form the pavement on the lanes of the gallery. Talk about walking among the dead!
Entering the Passage it was as though I really had fallen into another world. To begin, this was not simply one passage rather several branches of passages that merge into one long central passageway. All the hallways are lined with downscale ready-made clothing wholesalers of mostly Asian or Eastern origin.
Scattered among these stores are wholesalers of everything from mannequins, bags, hangers, and ribbons to clothing racks, button and bows. Signs on most of the stores clearly indicate that only wholesale purchasers are welcome – retail consumers don’t even bother trying!
The main passageway – Passage de Caire – seems to go on forever: indeed, it is the oldest, at 217 years; the longest, at 370 metres; and the narrowest, at 2.7 metres, covered passage in Paris. Unfortunately though the entire passageway has fallen into a state of disrepair. Support posts appear to be holding up the ceiling, which used to be glass but is currently plywood. Safety tape surrounds other structural posts and a number of the shops have been closed citing “emergency work needed” as an excuse. Mannequins and clothing racks litter the narrow passageways contributing to an overall atmosphere that is both surreal and rather eerie. A sign posted at one of the many entrances indicates that the entire passage is currently being renovated; one can only hope that it will be restored to its original beauty.
I, of course, took my time wandering through each of the passageways, snapping photos and marveling at both the level of activity as well as the oddness of such a hidden space.
I was slightly disoriented when I popped back out to the bright light of day from one of the many entrances to Passage de Caire. As I hurried back to rue Aboukir, once again input the door code and climbed the stairs to my Conversation class I realized that, while I had indeed had a great surprise adventure, rather than being early I was now 5 minutes late for class. Oh well, c’est Paris.