Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Watching for the Gestapo, reservoirs, and secret spots

On the way home today, I decided to drift down the rue Lauriston, which descends from the small hill on which the Arc de Triomphe stands down towards the rue Saint Didier. This street has a sinister place in history, because the German Gestapo had its French headquarters here during the Occupation. Unfortunately I couldn't remember the street address as I walked down the street, since I had turned down the street on a whim. I later verified that the evil address was at number 93, where there is a small plaque explaining the unsavory past of the location.

Contrary to Hollywood portrayals, the Gestapo was not a large organization. It got most of its information not from spying on people, but from denunciations provided with enthusiasm by the Germans. This fact is played down a lot because modern-day Germany doesn't like to think about the willingness with which it helped the Gestapo to do its dirty work. The situation was similar in France, where the Gestapo depended a great deal on French informants—of which there were all too many. I've looked at some of the letters sent by ordinary French people to the Gestapo to squeal on their neighbors, and they're pretty disgusting. Of course, not all French people under the Occupation were denouncing their brethren to the Germans … but the Gestapo did receive about five million such letters during the few years of its activity in France. The Gestapo also scraped the very bottom of French society for various species of low-life that it could engage as informants, some of whom entered the history books as famous losers.

But fortunately that is all in the past (I hope). The building where the Gestapo worked is quite innocent today. I wonder if any ghosts inhabit the inside.

Also on this streeet, at one point you walk along a really high stone wall, with no windows or doors of any kind. In Paris, this usually means that the wall encloses one of two things: a prison—of which there is only one, the Santé prison on the Left Bank—or a water reservoir, of which there are several. The one on this street is the reservoir de Passy, which covers almost a city block. If you didn't know there was a reservoir behind the wall, you probably wouldn't guess … after all, the French love high fences. This reservoir is unusual in that it's open on top, whereas the others have a roof over the water. However, it's not open to the public, so you can't just climb up there and look at it. But there are still pictures of it on the Web, just the same (there are pictures of everything on the Web).

Other reservoirs in town include the one at the top of the Montmartre butte and the one next to the Parc Montsouris. Tourists in Montmartre walk right past the reservoir without having any idea that it's there. The one near the Parc Montsouris is also very discreet. Both are covered. The Montsouris reservoir supposedly has the best-tasting water in the city, although all Parisian water is tasty (in the sense that it's very pure and has no taste or smell). I think my apartment is supplied by the Montsouris reservoir, but I'm not sure. If I let the water run from the faucet for a minute or two, it gets very cold and tastes very nice. I have to let it run for a bit because the pipes in the building are still made of lead and I don't trust them.

The discreet presence of these reservoirs emphasizes another thing about Paris (and about other large cities as well): you never know quite what's behind a door or wall in the city. Lots of buildings in the city have interior courtyards accessible only to the buildings' residents, for example. Even my building has a courtyard—although I've never seen it, having never ventured out the back of the building. In fact, I've never been above my own floor in my building. I think it has seven or eight floors, but I'm not even sure.

Anyway … another example of this is the Promenade Plantée on the east side of town. From the ground, it looks like a long building with arcades beneath, in which there are many shops (mostly artsy shops). You might not ever guess that it's actually part of an old elevated railway, even after climbing the stairs to the deck above and walking down it for a while. There are no tracks left, just sidewalks, benches, and gardens. It continues east for miles, from the Bastille to the eastern city limit. All pedestrian and very nice on the upper level, but you wouldn't even know it's there if you didn't look for it.

And then there's another park on the west side, which I won't name because I like to keep sneaky secrets. It's a public park but it's surrounded by buildings, so unless you know exactly where the entrance is, you can't find a way in. Indeed, you won't even know it's there, since it's not visible from outside the park itself. Very discreet. But still open to all. About the only people who know about it are people from the neighborhood.

There are several parks like this in my own neighborhood. One is hidden behind a very high and forbidding wall that looks like something that would surround a military installation. And other is very tiny and hidden among some buildings. Again, they are public, but when you go inside you almost get the feeling that you are trespassing somehow. Many public parks are surrounded by tall, spiky iron fences, which enhances the sensation of trespassing, even though they are open to all.

And there there are shopping galleries. (I'm working on a small video showing a few of these, by the way.) There are modern shopping centers and galleries in Paris, but there are also small ones that are sometimes 200 years old or more. They also have spiky iron gates at the entrances, but in fact they are completely open shopping malls with shops inside. It's just that they were built in the 19th century, when styles were different. Most of them are small and narrow with frosted-glass skylights and quirky little shops inside. They are extremely well hidden. You can walk right past most of them and never notice them. Tourists don't visit them unless their guide books explicitly mention them. I still haven't found even a significant fraction of all the galleries that exist in Paris, but I know many of the more famous ones.

Anyway, I'll post my video of some of these galleries as soon as I've finished with it.


Marlow Williams said...

I've read that the Passy reservoir doesn't supply water for drinking, but rather for landscaping, fountains, and gutter washing. It's so ominous looking from the street level.

Aprenta said...

Interesting. I had never heard that, but it would explain why the reservoir is uncovered. It does look rather imposing. In fact it looks just like the outside of the Santé prison on the Left Bank. From the street, it's hard to tell whether it's a prison or a reservoir.

moose said...

thank you...just returned from Paris and could not find what that hufe wall enclosed.......Joe Brady...PA.USA

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