Changing Quarters

photo: cafe les papillons

Mr. Kritz' standby café on the Rue Mouffetard.

Remembering Mouffetard

Email from Mark Kritz, via the Internet: Tuesday, 31. August 1999:-

I greatly enjoyed and appreciated your reportage on the Rue Mouffetard area. It was my old quartier in a former Parisian existence.

During my four years in Paris in the late '70's I lived in three apartments. The first two had their charms, but for one reason or another I wasn't content in them.

My reward came in the third, under the eaves of a 150 year old buildingphoto: pass des postes in the Passage des Postes - a narrow pedestrian street running between the Rue Mouffetard and the Rue Lhomond - where I stayed for just under two and a half years.

I had a local 'stammkneipe' - which, not knowing better, I called 'my café'. It was the Café de la Poste, on the Place des Patriarches, opposite a large building which had earlier served as a public bath.

The Passage des Patriarches, looking across to the Passage des Postes.

The 'patron' was a very nice chap named Catusse. He and his wife lived across the street, three doors down and four floors up, and in their café they served occasional cafés to such as myself.

Even by the standards of the day the coffee they served wasn't much, but the strong point chez Catusse wasn't the coffee, it was the ambience and the decor. There was no evidence of anyone lifting so much as a paintbrush since the start of WW I, there was plenty of light, and one or two copies of that day's paper. Plus there was no 'flipper,' or any other electrical noisemaker.

The main business of the Café de la Poste, however, was not providing café and such to the growing local population of intello-academics like myself and my landlord, but rather administering to the lubracative needs of the workers at the local bureau de la Poste.

The place was always full of men downing glasses of wine or cognac prior to and following work, as well as during lunch and other break points of the postal day. Other than to myself, I don't remember ever seeing a café served. No wonder my mail was always put in the wrong box!

But then one day, early in my first spring in the quartier, M. Catusse came down with a lingering case of the flu. His wife tried to tend both the café and her husband. After a few weeks this proved too much for her.

As they both were well past retirement age they resigned their management of the café, to retire to their hometown in the southwest of France. On my last visit they gave mephoto: marche mouffetard the little plastic sign which had hung behind the zinc bar - and which hangs in my kitchen today. It reads, "N'engulez pas le patron; la patronne s'en charge."

A part of Mouffetard's marché.

Needless to say, the owner of the café didn't seek another tenant, but rather remodeled, and installed a chic boutique in its place. A trend which had already swept away many of the 'petite commerçants' of the quartier, and which has today - in this part of the 5th at least - pretty much run its course.

But in the spring of 1977 there were still two or three bougnats in the area, and even the Café Mouffetard hadn't yet been gentrified. I also seem to remember a little shop, higher up, that sold nothing but Laguiole knives and the like.

Further up still was the legendary wine shop of Jean-Baptiste Besse, and a little beyond that the Place Contrescarpe, and a little cafe-resto called Picpus where I would go for occasional Saturday lunches. Monsieur Besse hung on until just a few years ago - I recently learned he had been there since 1932 - and a recent lunch at the cafe Picpus showed it to be as good as I remembered it to be. But as I say, the area was rapidly changing.

I could go on for a similar length about my various visits to Monsieur Besse's shop. For example, about his rummaging about in his third sub-cellar for fifteen minutes, looking for a particular bottle of 1961 Burgundy that he thought would be the ideal complement to a dinner I was preparing. He found it, and it was sublime.

Some years before, the building I lived in on the Passage des Postes had been purchased by a developer - in fact, he apparently had purchased two other buildings on that short street as well. Let's not think of how he got the old tenants out.

Every apartment was completely remodeled, including the addition of small but modern and well-equipped kitchens, and fully equipped bathrooms. No need now for the public baths on Patriarches.

In 1977 there was even a plumber, and an electrician, operating out of tiny shopfronts on the Passage des Postes. And the Passage des Patriarches, the continuation of the Passage des Postes on the other side of the Rue Mouffetard, was lined with two story buildings and more tiny shopfonts. All gone; long gone!

Following the renovation of my apartment it had been purchased by a professor at the Sorbonne. But after few years, when their kids started coming and they needed more space, they rented it out, and with the rent I paid - actually it was quite reasonable - they were able to afford a big place in the 19th, overlooking the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

With the passage of time there were more and more people like myself and my professor landlord, and fewer and fewer of the WW I widows and small artisans and shopkeepers who until the early '70s had pretty much dominated the population of the Mouffetard quartier.

Following the closing of the Café de la Poste I shifted my allegiance to the Café lesphoto: ds 21i, mouffetard Papillons, on the Rue Mouffetard at the corner of the Rue Daubenton. No pinball there either. And with the added attraction that Madame had at the time recently started preparing and serving a no-frills hot lunch to some of the local outdoor market stall tenders. If there was anything left over, regulars like myself could eat there as well.

Like Mr. Kritz' memories, a DS21 from the early '70's.

As time passed and they got into the swing of things the restaurant aspect grew and they started offering a choice of main courses. All this from a kitchen the size of my kitchen table! They're still going strong, and I usually take a café there, or lunch, when I'm in that part of town.

Now I'm back in Paris, after a gap of something like 17 years, 10 months and nine days - but hey, who's counting?

This time I'm on the 'back slope' of Montmartre, rather than in the Latin Quarter. But somehow, even after almost two years, I still haven't really established myself in a local café. I'm not sure why, but part of the reason may be that with the passage of time my tolerance for cigarette smoke - and for clanging pinball machines - has diminished.

Another factor may be my addiction to really good coffee. There are some happy exceptions, but the brown sawdust used in far too many cafés doesn't make the tank after one has been exposed to Starbucks - not to mention Peets.

In any case, one nice thing about being in a totally new quartier - besides the fun of exploring it - is that one isn't so aware of the missing shops and buildings - which of course I would be all too aware of had I gone back to the 5th arrondissement.


Mark Kritz©1999

No Change at Les Papillons

photo: resto le mouffetard

This restaurant is just before the Place de la
Contrescarpe, near Mouffetard.

Bonjour Mark -

Paris:- Wednesday, 1. September 1999:- Mouffetard was on the way to the Jardin des Plantes today, so I went by it to say 'hello' for you at the Café Les Papillons.

It is not easy to explain these missions to baffled café operators. The 'patron' guessed your age as 55-60 and thought you were somewhat stooped. You are neither, so he must have had somebody else in mind.

You neglected to mention the café's toilet is probably larger than its kitchen, although not by much. At first I thought some of the kitchen was hidden behind the door frame, but it isn't. You must have a small kitchen table.

The kitchen smelled very good. Madame's face was a bit red, but it was from cooking. She is extremely proud of her broom-closet-sized work space; as if she knows everything that comes out of it is a minor miracle. If I hadn't had four other places to be, I would have had lunch there.

Le Papillon stays open until 20:00, but only serves lunch. Because of the marché, it opens about 06:30. The address is 129. Rue Mouffetard, Paris 5.
signature, regards, ric

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