Thursday, August 13, 2009

The "Garde-Manger"

For years I have been fascinated by the day-to-day living conditions of Jacky's childhood in the working class neighborhood of Belleville in the 20th arrondissement of Paris or what I call his Le Ballon Rouge childhood (aka "The Red Balloon", the 1956 children's film classic by Albert Lamorisse). This is more than simply a fortuitous reference as the film was shot on location in Ménilmontant which is a part of Belleville and in 1956 Jacky was 7 years old, about the age of the film's protagonist. For me, it seems a childhood out of a totally different era and much more exotic than my pre Castro Cuban and post Castro American one...

Although his family was solidly middle class (after all his father was an engineer and made a good living), his stingy housewife mother of Auvergnat descent refused to move to a nicer, (i.e., more expensive) neighborhood. He fondly recalls the narrow cobblestone streets, the steep stairs, the dilapidated buildings, the neighborhood cinemas, cafés and shops and most of all, the hilly, weed covered vacant lot where the film's climax takes place: it was his playground as well as that of the gamins shown in the film.

He recalls less fondly his mother's centime pinching ways: the tiny family apartment of 31 square meters (or 333.68 square feet) for a family of four. His mother's adamant refusal to buy a television set, his father who designed vehicles but would not drive a car, the fold-out bed in a corner of the living-dining room on which he slept until he left for the army at age 19 and having to bathe either in a zinc tub in the family kitchen or at the public bain-douches.

In 1989 when we were in Paris for the bicentennial of the French Revolution, Jacky's niggardly mother would not allow us to stay in their apartment (even though she and his sister were out of town). The best she could do for us was to allow us to stay in a vacant apartment in the building to which she held the keys. The apartment was, indeed, completely vacant, so we slept on inflatable mattresses on the floor and only ate take out food with plastic utensils, having no means to cook. But we had hot water, electricity, a roof over our heads and no Paris hotel expenses.

It was in that apartment that I discovered what Jacky referred to as the "frigo parisien" (aka "garde-manger") in the kitchen cum bathroom (i.e., a shower stall set up in one corner of the kitchen, the toilet was in a separate closet-like room by the entry).

A common feature of parisian apartments starting the end of the 19th century, the "garde-manger" (aka pantry) or "frigo parisien" is commonly found under the kitchen windows. It is a cabinet with louvers and screening used to store food. When we first visited the Paris apartment we bought, one of the first items that caught my attention was the under the window kitchen pantry. It was, in my mind, a definite exotic plus.

But this cabinet's interior had been panelled, the screening and louvers blocked, the doors and locks covered with layers and layers of paint. I knew I had my work cut out for me. As soon as we bought the apartment, one of the first things I did was to strip the paint from the doors and the locks.

Then, I tore out all of the panelling and the rusty screening and replaced it with new, clean plastic screening, stapled into place.

Eh, voila, my finished "frigo parisien"!

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