Inside Rungis’ Meat Market: A Photo Essay

Wandering as a flâneur (and staying in place)

In the early hours of the early spring months on Île Saint-Louis—before the day ticks towards its highest temperature, when the step between sunshine and a shadow dictates your mood—it seems all of the Seine belongs to you. The chilly air and stretches of deserted riverbank convinced me I had chosen the ideal Metro stop for my day’s objective of being a flâneur, a wanderer by foot and a local without aim.
I left behind a quiet world when I first took the stairs from the sidewalk to the riverbank; but every time I peeked up at one of the many bridges crossing the Seine, I saw more silhouettes of passersby. A quick jog up the next set of stairs confirmed my worries: that quiet world was gone with the morning chill, and the sunshine lured tourists and locals alike outside to the river that again belonged to the rest of Paris.
All of Paris indeed seemed to flood Île Saint-Louis. The buskers began to claim real estate for the day, and out-sang the birds’ morning melodies. The signal was clear: the tourists were coming. So much for being a lonely flâneur. Strolling aimlessly quickly turned into an act of weaving between shoulders while perpetually mispronouncing “pardon.”
On a fair afternoon, it can be difficult to see Paris. Sure, I could see the reflections of sunlight bouncing off the Seine, and I could see the Parisian architecture against the backdrop of clear blue skies; but these sights faded into the background as the bustle of selfie sticks dominated the foreground.
I shuffled along the footbridge of the Seine and remembered the constant motion in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors where to look at an object is just to point and shoot your camera. I looked around for refuge.
In the distance, a pop of color: framed by the shoulders and traffic lights and trinket stands, I saw three pink flowered trees. In their shade, was that a garden bench? A lonesome reader? They seemed to promise some departure from the busy atmosphere. Eyes locked on the splash of pink, I walked on.
The trees marked the entrance into what seemed like the last cove around the Île Saint-Louise still accepting lonely wanderers. Their flowers threw scattered shade over a compact lawn in Jardin des Combattants de la Nueve, a scene looking for all the world like an Instagrammer’s heaven, but empty save for a couple of women chatting without their cameras.

Jardin des Combattants de la Nueve, on the mainland next to Île Saint-Louis (Photo by Alice Maiden).

I took a breath, enjoyed the silence, and then doubted whether I should linger. It was my last day in Paris, and all of Paris was beyond these pink trees! But as minutes passed, and individuals wandered in one by one, the park stayed sleepy and quiet, perhaps governed by the same unwritten rule that keeps empty churches and libraries silent. This garden was for hushed conversations and catnaps with eyes squinting closed towards the sun. Contrary to the Paris beyond the pink trees where I would have wandered in the noisy day, this garden was for the flâneurs that choose to stay put and let their minds wander.

Joining individuals laying in the dewy grass, in the quiet of closed eyes, I had the most colorful view of Paris I could have imagined. I counted the seconds between the Metro roaring underground beneath my body; I mapped the alternating French and English surrounding me; I tried to put words to the garden’s scent, but so far have only been able to articulate that it smelled exactly like my grandmother’s garden.

An hour later, I squinted my eyes open, and stood up. The cast of characters in the garden had rotated, so I vacated my spot of imprinted grass for another flâneur still to come.

To see Versailles in motion, try moving some furniture around

In houses-turned-museums, a thin red rope is as good as a brick wall in keeping visitors at bay; but the curator of The Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s summer home at Versailles, can step past that rope and into history.

In a private tour for visiting student journalists on Thursday, Curator Bertand Rondot stepped into the large dining room and grabbed a deep brown chair dotted by gold metal pins. The group gasped: the chair looked as fragile and untouchable as the rest of the surrounding fragments of Marie Antoinette’s world. When Rondot then briskly swung the chair upside-down, propping the ornate woodcut backrest on his shoulder, nearly every student whipped out a camera to capture the unique image: both the rarely seen underside of the chair, and the sight of human contact with an untouchable artifact.

The underside of the dining room chair in Trianon (Photo by Alice Maiden).

Objects in museums usually seem as static as pixels on a screen. Their display seems sufficient in telling the whole story: visitors can walk from room to room without asking or wondering what it on the back or underneath an object. When the Rondot breached the invisible walls that the visitors could not, though, he brought the room to life. The bottom of this chair promised more stories and sparked more questions than the chandeliers and intricate wallpaper that usually characterize Versailles and The Petit Trianon.

Rondot reminded the visitors that objects have backs, bottoms, stamps left by the humans who made them and signs of wear from the humans who used them. You can imagine the scratchiness of the chair’s woven underside, and picture someone applying the thick black ink that reads “C.T. – au No. 78 – 20.” Using those numbers, the curators pieced together a story that Marie Antoinette tried to keep secret.

Notorious for her lavish lifestyle, Marie Antoinette was relentlessly criticized by the public in the tumultuous time leading up to the French Revolution. In an effort to conceal her spending, Rondot said, she had someone destroy the purchase records of the chairs and other furniture destroyed. The numbers on the underside, however, hold the key to reconstructing Antoinette’s The Petit Trianon.

The numbers denote the type of room a chair belongs to, and indicate that this chair was for a dining room. Curators used other clues in records of the house to determine in which of the multiple dining rooms this chair would have been.

“It is like a puzzle,” Rondot said, “which we can slowly reconstruct.” From behind the red rope, the most visitors can do is observe Versailles as an image. But look under even just one chair, and Versailles might start looking like the moving picture it really is, with still more stories to tell, and puzzles to solve.

It’s better (and worse) than you think: seeing politics from every side with Catherine Pégard

Madame Catherine Pégard has been on both sides of the French political stage, as both player and spectator, and she has some good news for us. “The best part of politics is better than you can imagine.” The next moment, though, she will quickly add, “but the bad part of politics is probably worse than you can imagine.”

You might come to this double-sided conclusion, too, if you had lived as many lives as Pégard. She has played the parts of the journalist, as the editor-in-chief of Le Point; the liaison between the journalist and the public figure, as the spokesperson for President Nicolas Sarkozy; and now, the figure that the journalist pursues. Madame Pégard is the President of the Château de Versailles. Everyone answers to her—curators, restorers, gardeners, fountaineers, security guards—and everyone depends on her, for finding resources, for communicating among staff, for maintaining the quality of the museums. She has a big job.

“President is president,” she says. “You have everything to do.” And when Pégard says “everything,” she is not exaggerating. By definition, she is head of a cultural institution; but Versailles is heavy with history, both a place to administrate and an idea to maintain. Pégard’s job description includes “keeping Versailles alive” and maintaining its role as the “history book of France.”

Pégard, luckily, has a way of making impossible jobs seem like simple tasks, a skill she traces back to her days as a journalist. France might be a big story for Versailles to tell, but she has told plenty of stories before.

“You have to tell what you know, and that’s it.” You might feel almost silly for asking such a strong woman and leader how she navigates complicated situations. She will tell you her approach with a blunt confidence that feels colored by years of experience and lessons learned.

“If you want to know somebody, you must go meet them,” she says of her time as a journalist. “You must know what you know, you must know what you are, you must know what they are.”

“Catherine made her reputation as being there–on the ground, over and over, year after year,” says Elaine Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief of The New York Times. “You build a reputation where you are respected, not only because of who you are as a person, but what you know.”

On the eve of the French presidential election, one might turn to people like Pégard for her take on what’s happening now, and what will happen next. Having led what she calls her “three lives,” she has a broader perspective than the people on the receiving end of media. After her experiences, she explains, “everything is more important. Everything is more colored.”

Pégard too, though, seems as uncertain about the upcoming election as everyone else. While she has more insight than most from her many political experiences, she cannot look to the past to answer who will win, or what will happen next.

“It’s very difficult, because I think we have never seen this before in France. I can’t believe it,” she said, faltering just a bit.

The most people can do, she explains, is to inform themselves and participate. “If I were a journalist,” she explains, “I’d try to follow the contestants, and try to explain what they do. Which is just what we can do.”

Although Madame Pégard cannot give an answer to the many questions about France’s political future, she is clear about the way the French should look for one. “We need to talk more about the past, not only the present,” says the President of France’s history book. “Because you are not the man you are at the moment. You are the man you were before.”

Inside Rungis, a strange new (male?) world

In the early hours of the morning, while the rest of Paris is still asleep, a small city on the outskirts gets to work. This city is the industrial complex called Rungis Marché, the agricultural market where businesses get the food that feeds Paris. The nocturnal Parisians that operate Rungis’ meat, poultry, and fish sections trade daylight hours for chilly white fluorescent warehouses, lined with animals that do not yet look quite like food. To the visitors that ignores the life cycle of their burgers before they land on their plates, Rungis is a strange new world, where questions arise faster than any busy worker can pause to answer.

Cattle heads in the meat section of Rungis (Photo by Alice Maiden).

But even this unusual setting might seem all too familiar to women who venture into the rows of bloodied meat racks. Rungis is still, it seems, a man’s world, populated by very few women and comparatively many more age-old stereotypes.

The atmosphere is like an old photograph of butchers a century ago brought to life, joking in the camaraderie of the all-male, manly-man setting of fish and meat markets. Rungis’ head of Public Affairs and Governance, Bérengère Banquey, is a confident woman with clear command of her industry. She was the only female, though, in most of the warehouses through which she toured the student journalists visiting from Princeton University this morning.

The hierarchical relationship between Banquey and the male workers might make it tempting to dismiss the gender imbalance in Rungis – explaining the ratio away as a consequence of the shift hours, or perhaps the element of physical labor. However, some students sensed an uncomfortable atmosphere when their conversations unraveled into flirtation bordering on harassment, which might suggest otherwise.

When Princeton junior Lavinia Liang lingered in the poultry section to chat with Gary, an employee with a minimal English vocabulary, the conversation turned to hometowns. After Lavinia explained she was from New York, Gary continued to press her for more details about the city. Confused, but amiable, Liang offered more details about New York, and assumed they were misunderstanding one another. When a row of men across the aisle started to yell in French, the sociable atmosphere began to seem strange. Then Liang realized what Gary was asking for.

“It was all very friendly camaraderie – until I found out he kept asking me for my address. He had been asking for my habitación,” Liang said. When she realized what the men were joking about, she left to meet up with others from the group.

Further down the aisle, though, “they started making meowing noises at us,” Liang said.

“Just don’t respond,” another female classmate told her.

Gary’s flirtation and the workers’ cat-calling might have been isolated incidents, and perhaps not indicative of Rungis’ culture or workers. “It seemed to me that, on average, the men working in the poultry section seemed younger, but that might have been because of the people I was interacting with.”

Liang also learned that the poultry section is more lively because the employees all work for the same company, whereas the other sections contain multiple companies, and the employees work more quietly and more professionally. Even if none of the other people in Rungis would call attention to gender this way, nearly all those other people in Rungis are, still, men. Other than Banquey, Liang said, there were no women in the poultry section, and the fish and meat sections were similarly lacking in women.

One other female worker besides Banquey did stroll through the rows of hanging meat racks, donning a white coat and white wedges, blood-free despite the blood-spattered floor. This was the daughter of the Director of the meat section, her manicured hands and neatly made-up face standing in sharp contrast to her surroundings. She was not there to just look pretty; she was there to work, having recently studied business and preparing to potentially take over the business from her father.

Only 23 years old, she had studied business in school and toured the student journalists around her workplace as confidently as any of her other fellow workers. When the journalists asked about her job, though, she did not pretend her wedge shoes blended right in.

“I did want to work in luxury,” she said. “But here I am.”

The young female butcher touring Princeton student journalists around the meat section of Rungis (Photo by Alice Maiden).


The young female butcher walking away after talking to the Princeton students (Photo by Alice Maiden).

On your right, notice the gates: seeing (and fearing) historic Paris, like the locals do

On a stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens, the crunch of gravel beneath your feet fills your ears; the swirl of runners weaving in and around you fills your vision; and the rich stories of the royal inhabitants of the mansions fill your mind. You will probably not feel fear.

How can you be afraid when you stand among stretches of carefully tailored grass and towering mansions? When you enter the Gardens, you enter the past, and nobody mentions that day’s bleeding headlines about terrors and crimes around a globalized world. Historical sights—especially the beautiful ones—feel separated from the real world, especially to tourists who cannot perceive a city like Paris as a home, but rather as a temporary destination. So when a guide pointed to some gates on a tour this past Monday and explained that they were added in response to the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, the group let out a little gasp.

Terrorist attacks? Causing a ripple in the Luxembourg Gardens? The historical sites of Paris are supposed to live outside of current events. No matter how unsafe or unstable a major city might get, its monuments seem timeless and reliable to tourists who travel to see what Google Images promises them. Of course, tourist destinations inevitably tack on increased security measures in response to danger. (Think of pre-9/11 days before security involved shoes-off, full-body pat-downs.) Precautions instituted after moments of crisis are jarring at first, then dissolve into the background, and the illusion of historical sites’ timelessness settles back into place.

When the guide asked tourists if they had seen the Gardens before, three hands raised into the air.  Had they seen these Gardens, though, or some place else? To the infrequent visitor, the Luxembourg Gardens do not age between visits. Paris does not age; when it does, tour guides do not tack on current events to their scripts, and tourists take care not to notice.

Even the most tourist-filled destinations are part of locals’ landscapes. Fear is part of Parisians’ worlds, and so are gates; granted, when a tour guide’s mention of terror attacks is sandwiched between talks of kings and architects of years past, stories of the past and present blur into a narrative that tourists can forget at the end of the day. But to understand Paris as both a city of history and of the present, you must pay attention to both the mansions and their new gates.

In the Basilica of Saint-Denis, close quarters tell a story of power

As you squeeze through the narrow grid of funerary statues lining the chilly halls of the Basilica of Saint Denis, you might find that what you hear does not match what you see. Look up, and the audio tour’s grandiose descriptions like “royal necropolis” and “sacred burial ground” do describe the ornate stained glass windows flooded with light. Look down at your hips, though, and you’re crammed between tombs lined in rows, so orderly and sterile that they are more evocative of hospital beds than the final resting place for royalty from centuries ago.

The Basilica, built in the mid-eighth century, was an attractive piece of real estate much sought-after by over one hundred individuals lucky enough to be buried on its sacred grounds. (Saint Denis, the Bishop of Paris in the third century, supposedly picked up his head after being decapitated, and walked six miles to this very location as his final resting place.) Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, forty-three kings, thirty-two queens, sixty-three princes and princesses, and ten great officers of the crown were buried there, among them Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen of France in the sixteenth century. Despite a close call in the French Revolution when the Basilica and its monarchical symbols were nearly completely destroyed, the Basilica was restored, and seventy recumbent statues now populate its halls.

For corpses of such royal status, commemorated by statues of such fine precision, one might expect the tombs to be raised above eye level against the backdrop of a cathedral. Anything would beat this arrangement: a tourist, taking a photo of a statue in front of her, mistook the one behind her for a table where she carelessly dropped her bag!

But the grid of statues is not an accident of poor museum planning. Its accuracy in reflecting French monarchical and sculptural culture comes not just from its form, but in part from this strangely compact layout.

In their no-frills layout, the individual statues gain status. Abbot Suger, who supervised the construction of Basilica Saint Denis, wanted desperately to make prominent the link between France and Charlemagne. Charlemagne was the Holy Roman Emperor in the ninth century who led the spreading of Christianity in Europe; so if Suger could show how France and Charlemagne were connected, then he could show that France was the true heart and home of Western Christianity. The Basilica, in every detail from its ceiling height to floor plan, reflects Suger’s strategy to connect the French back to Charlemagne and to the bible. The statues are an instance of such a design detail with theological weight: royal bodies lined up in order of their reign were highly-visible proof of how the French monarchy stretches back to Charlemagne.

Strength came in numbers for the French monarchy as it sought legitimacy as a Christian power. Each monarch, though deprived of the status comes from an individualized effigy, gained status when part of the theological lineage that would give the French more status as a nation. What better proof of theological lineage than physically mapping it out, statue by statue?

Perhaps the Basilica’s 2017 crowd might threaten to dilute the statues’ meaning, when the occasional wide-hipped tourist bumps into a king’s feet. However, that the cathedral still preserves the meaning it held to visitors of centuries past, through both its objects and its layout, is an uncommon feat when so many of the world’s treasures live unhappily out of context behind museum glass. The grid of kings is, it seems, still a powerful sight indeed.

The grid of funerary statues in the Basilica of Saint Denis (Photo by Alice Maiden).

Behind picturesque storefronts, Paris bookstores bleeding out

Le Bouquinaire, a bookshop with an over thirty year tenure on the rue de Martyrs, seems out of a storybook: bodies constantly pop through the door, letting in a warm wind that fills the narrow stacks of a cozy kingdom surveyed by the old, tautly-faced owner perched on his stool in the corner. Guy Bertin, 71, plays the character of the quietly-sour bookseller; his temperament seems part of the Parisian bookshop’s setting. Behind Bertin’s mood, though, is a real frustration at the shape of independent bookstore culture, and a real fear for the future of his shop, which make the picture seem a little more drained of color.

Independent bookstores are struggling to keep their doors open, and Bertin’s long tenure on the rue de Martyrs does not grant him immunity from booksellers’ communal fear. Although landlords have primes granted by the government that make rent more affordable, expenses are rising, and sales are dipping.

“It is not possible that this can remain as a bookshop,” Bertin says in response to Le Bouquinaire’s future after he sells it. He says that in the last year alone, fifteen bookshops in Paris have closed, leaving only three survivors. “All you need to do is walk around Paris to see the change.”

During his time on the rue de Martyrs, Bertin has watched the world change. He ascribes the dip in readership to the Internet, an impending threat facing independent bookshops across Paris. “Before, maybe 100 people wouldn’t have a TV or the Internet,” he says. “Now, maybe 10 don’t have them.”

Bertin offers one solution: if city hall designates his and other bookshops for cultural uses—to  not just fix the price of rent, but reduce or eradicate it entirely—as it has for other spaces around the city, his business might be able to survive. Bertin is clear about the urgency of the situation: this is “the only way to stop the hemorrhage,” he says. His sour disposition makes a bit more sense when his goal is no longer to thrive, but perhaps just to survive.