Passage to the Orient

The restaurant 'Pooja'
While waiting for a haircut, have something exotic to eat.

East of Suez in the Passage Brady

Paris:- Wednesday, 14. May 1997:- The weather is not bad; it is sort of a flat normal nothing. Light grey overhead and feeling a bit humid, but I don't expect rain.

I am thinking of 'doing' the Porte Saint-Denis. A lot of my articles start this way; I ask myself, what do I know about the Porte Saint-Denis? Besides its once having been a gate in the city's walls, I know nothing. I usually ask myself questions like this while having café after breakfast - if it is pouring rain, I ask myself some 'inside' sort of question.

There are two ways to do a job like this: read it up first and go there and find the details, or go there and 'discover' it all and read it up afterwards. Neither of these methods are perfect.

I prefer the second; because sometimes it's possible to turn up little 'details' on my own, and it proves my eye can recognize something unusual. The reverse can happen too and I manage to overlook something really important. But on the whole, I like the 'chance' aspect of the second method because it has more 'discovery' to it.

Today, now, if I had looked in my guidebooks, East end of passage Brady they would have told me about the Porte Saint-Denis and I would be looking for specific details. But if I had looked at my guidebooks, they would not have told me the Porte Saint-Denis is being renovated and is completely covered by a great big brown sack and there is absolutely nothing to 'see' about it at all.

East of Strasbourg, the passage Brady is uncovered and less lively.

So, while I'm coming down the rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, towards the border between the 10th and 2nd arrondissements, I am kind wondering if I am on the right street, because I do not see any Porte Saint-Denis. I'm not sure, but all I see is an indistinct and shapeless 'brown.'

Eye says to brain, "What's that blob there?" Brain says, "Dunno. Never seen anything like it. Supposed to be a hulking great city gate there. Puzzling."

The closer I get to the boulevard Saint-Denis, the more the street has a market atmosphere. Now the blob is really big and I've figured out it is the Porte Saint-Denis and it is not going to be today's article. If it were, I could probably write a great, long, and possibly boring history about it. Maybe not so boring - but not today.

I am also noticing that this part of the rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis is a market-type street, but the 'market' is a bit of the Topkapi side of Istanbul, or Bombay, or Oran - and none of these are in my guidebooks either. I see a distinctive sign on a grocery store, and I wonder if there isn't a certain Turkish Monsieur and Madame who have a chain of them. The color is right, but I'm not really sure about the names.

This morning, over café, I had really thought of taking in the Passage des Panoramas, which is about 730 metres to the west along the Grands Boulevards, but I am right here now, and here is the entrance to the passage Brady, at number 46.

Looking in from the street, except for a purely Parisian bar on the right, the passage appears to start at Bombay, with Calcutta off in the distance. I'm not sure this is what the promoters had in mind when it opened on 15. April 1828, but this is how it is today.

The passage goes all the way to the rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin. It had a rotunda in the middle, which was disappeared in 1854 when the boulevard de Sébastopol - now boulevard de Strasbourg - was slashed through its centre. At the end I don't realize I'm at Saint-Martin, so I don't look down to see the city gate there, and it gets saved for another day.

Originally, the passage Brady had a mixture of tailors' shops, ateliers and lodgings. The passage was appreciated by some, but slammed by others - because it wasn't beside the Palais Royal - slammed out of pure snobbery in other words.

Although iron shutters have dropped forever on some of the shops, it is a lively passage and as a 'passage' there is a lot of foot traffic back and forth between Saint-Denis and Strasbourg. The other part, to the east, is much quieter and there is less in it, and no glass roof at all - although there are still some ateliers there.

Which is it? Are all 'Indian' restaurants outside of India really Pakistani, or is it the other way around? In the case of the passage Brady, there are restaurants with both labels, as there are in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis as well.

Between the restaurants, there are several barbershops. These are two or three-chair operations and Shalimar Tandoori the light bulbs are bright and the mirrors are flecked, and all of them have clients waiting their turns - or are they passing the time? Radios, or more likely, cassette-players are pumping out the appropriate background music; and the smells coming out of the grocery stores - there are two big ones just beyond 'Pooja' at the Saint-Denis end - are ones you could expect in the market near the docks in Sumatra.

The almost overlookable entrance to the western part, from Strasbourg.

There are holes in the skylight that runs the length of the passage and there is asphalt laid over what might be a colorful tiled floor, and there are rickety but original beams showing - and the decor of the restaurants is very colorful.

The entries where the passage is intercepted by the boulevard de Strasbourg, are unimposing - the east side, towards Saint-Martin, looks like the entry to an ordinary courtyard. There are a number of wig shops on the boulevard itself, and I've been seeing them in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis as well.

What I do not see are many people wearing wigs, and the number and size of shops dealing in them has me perplexed. Maybe they're just for party nights? The wig shops have sort of pseudo-American names; but they may have no more connection to the US than the pseudo-American slogans on T-shirts made in the Marais.

It is no secret that there are areas of Paris that seem close to Africa, but I had no notion that there are such large concentrations of Asia, other than Indochina. I also thought 'North Africa' and the rest of the continent were mainly around Barbés, but this is quite a way from there.

There isn't a lot written about the 10th arrondissement in the guidebooks - it looks like it's going to cost some footwear to get it up-to-date. It might be a full-time job.

Just a warning though - these restaurants look as if their hot sauce may be 'hot.' It might be wise to ask first, especially if you've gotten in the habit of asking for it 'extra-hot.'


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