We chose to live in an unglamorous quartier on the border between Paris’ 9th and 10th arrondisements for a few weeks because it forms the nucleus of the next Martin mystery. I had decided months ago that Clarie, who will be the novel’s main protagonist, would be teaching at the Lycee Lamartine, which is on the rue du Faubourg Poissoniere, only four blocks from where we are staying, and that the Martin living quarters would be within walking distance. I had located the school, the little park, the Bourse du Travail (or Labor Exchange) where her husband will be working, but I had to see these places and walk the walks and find her an apartment to live in. And I have to re-imagine (and research) what they would look like in 1897.
If I had my wish, I would only choose places that are easy to pronounce. But in Paris that is not always possible. So in choosing the Martins’ apartment, I strove to avoid confusion. This is not always easy either. After all, the Lycee Lamartine is not on the rue Lamartine; one scene must take place on the Boulevard Montmartre, which is not the same as the rue du Faubourg Montmartre, and certainly quite distinct (and some distance) from the really famous Montmartre, the hill itself, topped by the Sacre Coeur church. Within a day (despite almost constant rain) I found her street, rue Rodier, good for many reasons which will emerge if you, dear reader, have the patience to wait for the novel. I’ve also been able to enter her school, which has changed a great deal. (I’m hoping to be called back to peruse old photos.) Although the principal was very young and very stern, I did encounter some friendly teachers in the courtyard. One even advised me, with a big grin, that he took care of the archives downstairs, and if I wanted to descend with him, the many little creatures that I’d meet would provide me with elements for a “Romanesque” novel. Knowing that Romanesque is our equivalent for Gothic, I laughed and hastily declined the offer!
The quartier today is hustling and bustling, and the farther north you go (at the big intersection a block away from the apartment) it becomes increasingly African. Two independent middle-aged women we have met (one is our delightful artist landlady) have testified that they liked living here—perhaps a little defensively, describing it as central and pratique, which, they didn’t say, but I assumed, meant as opposed to charmant. The Latin Quarter, the oldest sections of the city (the islands, the Marais) and the elegant West End of town—that’s where the charm is. Or just up the hill from us at Montmartre, with its combination of tourism and gentrification. When my Clarie lived here, it would have been just as bustling and dense (without, of course, the dangers of all those motor bikes zooming at you). Like all of Paris, there would have been shops everywhere. (How do they survive now?), but the vehicles, the products, the people, the buildings have changed. (A friend once told me that Paris is always being built, this nowhere more true than in the streets that surround us.)
The major hallmark of our neighborhood now is the formal wear shops radiating out from the main intersection. Shop after shop of wedding dresses and evening gowns and men’s suits and materials at cheap prices and poor quality. These shops, as much as anything, mark our quarter as “popular” as the French used to say, meaning petit bourgeois and working class. Now they would probably also describe it as “multicultural.” We are, as the French say, tres contents, here, in a quarter so pratique that it must be as real as the suburbs I wrote about last time.