The Passage of Desire: Behind Every Title, a Story. Part Two


On this gloomy November weekend when we remember those who died in the Great War, and when France gets ready to mourn the victims killed and injured in the terrorist attack on the Bataclan, November 13th 2015, I’ve chosen to write about a story of hope, of not giving up, a love story. A true one. One with a happy ending.

It starts in le Passage du Desir, in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, a street whose name inspired the title of my novella, ‘The Passage of Desire’. Part 1 ended with an invitation to step through the doors of the magical shop just round the corner, and to lose yourself in visions of the future arising from the dreams of past generations…

catalogue A La Source des Inventions

‘A La Source des Inventions’ was founded in 1904 by a certain Monsieur Michel, an inventor whose family continued to run the shop for almost a century until its closure in 1994. A well-known meeting place for early aviators and model enthusiasts from all over the world, ‘La Source’ lives on today in the memories of nostalgic fans sharing Internet stories of time spent in its hallowed halls, the thrill of discovering its myriad treasures, the hours spent poring over its famous catalogues, which were sent all over the world and have now become collectors’ items. How many noses pressed up against those window panes over the years? How many children grew up listening to their fathers and grandfathers telling the story of that wonderful shop on the boulevard de Strasbourg, whose potent magic could unleash a flood of memories worthy of Monsieur Proust’s famous madeleine?

Catalogue cover: A La Source des Inventions, courtesy of Joël at

Back in the 1950s, in le Passage du Desir just off the Boulevard, the children sat in Grand- Père’s apartment dreaming of ‘La Source’ and its amazing machines, dreaming of a future where men might even travel to the moon in rocket ships.

And the grownups – what were they thinking?  Perhaps their minds were turned to the past, and the astonishing twists and turns of fate that had brought them all here: Grand- Père, from the Périgord, his son, Robert, ex-prisoner of war, and his daughter-in-law, Josefa, deported from a village in Poland.

Many years later Josefa would share her memories, shaking her head in wonder at the chain of events that had ended in a French country garden, opening out on to peaceful fields, where sweet summer breezes ruffled the long grass and in the sky above our heads giant aeroplanes floated down to the airport of Roissy Charles de Gaulle.

sweet summer breezes ruffle the grass

On September 1st, 1939 Nazi troops invaded Poland. On September 17th, Soviet forces marched in from the east, and one month later the country had been divided up between the two powers. Josefa was caught in that first advance; her village was raided and those who were able-bodied deported to do forced labour.  She found herself a prisoner on a farm where the drudgery and inhuman conditions of her new and shocking existence became so unbearable that she decided it was better to risk death in an attempt to escape than continue as she was.

She put her plan into action one night, managing to slip away without waking anyone and raising the alarm. Her initial elation, however, quickly gave way to terror and despair. She was alone in a foreign land, in the pitch dark of unfamiliar countryside, with no idea of what to do or where to go, her sole possessions the clothes she stood up in.  She stumbled on through the inky blackness, finally hearing the sound of a river. Instinct told her to follow it: rivers always led somewhere, and if the farmer discovered her escape and unleashed his dogs she could always take to the water to hide. Dawn began to break. She increased her pace, and saw, not far from the river, a railway line. In the distance, she made out a small station.

Now came another agonising decision. Two people waited on the deserted platform. With no other alternative, she approached. The couple turned round and addressed her in German.

Fifty years later she still recalled with amazement the kindness and courage of those strangers. Somehow, they managed to get her as far as Berlin, to a family with Polish connections who kept her hidden as long as they dared. But, as an escaped prisoner with a warrant out for her arrest, it soon became too dangerous for her to stay as she was. People were talked to, strings were pulled, arrangements were made. Josefa gave herself up; instead of being returned to the farm she had run away from, she was taken to a vast agricultural labour camp where the owner had a reputation for his relatively humane treatment of prisoners. There she was put to work in the fields, and there she stayed until the Liberation, when she would become part of the chaotic human tide flowing east and west as prisoners were repatriated. But by that time, her life had once again taken a dramatic turn.

Passage du désir, Paris photo courtesy of Patrice

Back in France, in 1940, Grand-Père’s only child, Robert, serving in an artillery division posted in Alsace, was taken prisoner at the fall of the Maginot line. He became a part of the estimated 1.8 million soldiers captured and taken to Germany. From the stalag where he was first held he was transferred to a Kommando, a work detail assigned to carry out agricultural labour. Like Josefa, he had one idea in his head: escape. After various unsuccessful attempts he was finally captured by the SS, saved only from the firing squad thanks to the intervention of a landowner where he worked.

Unknown to both of them, the trajectories of their lives were about to cross. One day Robert was sent to help with the harvest at a farm and it was there, working in the fields, that he and Josefa first set eyes on each other. And in the middle of devastation, death and hopelessness, a love story was born. At an age when young lovers are carried away by the thrill and promise of a budding relationship, the two faced a future that was at best uncertain. It would be years before they could truly be together; the complete story of their adventures, like so many others of that time, is the riveting stuff of novels (and long ones at that).

the garden in the north, with church beyond

Josefa was a natural story-teller. Soft-spoken, with a gentle Polish accent, she recounted events which were still vivid in her mind, and which seemed scarcely believable in the context of her enclosed, sun-drenched garden where the distant ringing of church bells added the final touch to a scene of eternal tranquillity.

May 1945. The news arrived at the camp, a rumour at first, then growing louder and louder until the realisation hit everyone with the weight of a sledge-hammer. It was over. Was this the start of a new life for her and Robert? And, her deepest,  most cherished prayer, could she now look forward to a future for the baby that was growing inside her, so big that she knew it was only a matter of weeks before it would be born into a world still reeling from the aftershocks of war?

Her hopes were dashed by a terrible decision. The camp was liberated by the Russians. Prisoners from the east would be returned to their country of origin; those from the west dispatched to join the Allies. In this long-awaited, bitter freedom, she and Robert were torn apart, neither of them knowing if they would ever manage to find each other again.

But the Robert whose one obsession whilst a prisoner was to escape now had another burning mission – to find Josefa, to get back to her and to their unborn child. How he would do it was not clear. But one thing was sure, he would move heaven and earth in the attempt.

He informed the authorities that a mistake had been made, that he was in fact of Polish nationality. In the prevailing chaos he was allowed to leave and set out in search of the convoy taking Josefa back to the east. And because, dear Reader,  miracles do sometimes happen, he found her. Now all they had to do was hope for another miracle, where they would be travelling in the opposite direction, back to France…

Tensions between the Russians and the Allies were mounting: one final exchange of prisoners was agreed. Robert, switching nationalities yet again, persuaded the Russians he was really French and that he and Josefa were legally married. He found himself on his way back to the Allied zone, this time accompanied by a heavily pregnant Josefa, half-dead with exhaustion and terror, and ‘holding both arms over my stomach as tight as I could, and praying to the baby ‘not yet, not yet’.

It was in Prenzlau, 100 km north of Berlin, that on May 27th 1945, their first son was born. It was in Prenzlau that a shocked and dazed Josefa remembered being handed something by an American soldier: ‘C’était un chocolat chaud’. A steaming mug of hot chocolate. With tears in her eyes (and in mine), she re-lived the marvel of clasping her fingers round its warmth and breathing it in. ‘I can still remember it, everything, the heat of the tin mug, the smell of the chocolate, the first sip, the most wonderful thing I have ever tasted.’

Entrance to the Passage du Désir Photo courtesy of Patrice

Arriving in France, the couple went to live with Robert’s father. For more than two years, the small apartment in le Passage du Desir was home to Grand- Père, the young couple, and their first child. What must it have been like for a young woman exiled from her homeland, captive in a foreign country for six years, starting a new life where she knew no-one except the man she had fallen in love with, and with whom she could only communicate in the language of their captors?

Seeing her all those years later, surrounded by pictures of her children and grandchildren, in the village where she and Robert settled in 1948 and where they would live for the rest of their days, I was in no doubt that life had given her treasures she’d never imagined during those long years at the camp. The image she presented was of someone observant and curious by nature, keenly interested in the world around her, quick to laugh or cry, her generous and loving nature evident not only in her relations with family and friends but in the menagerie of stray cats living in her garden alongside the chickens and rabbits.

But I also wondered about her more ‘hidden’ side; the strength of character and resourcefulness of that person who, aged nineteen, was able not only to escape from the farmer and his dogs, but go on to survive, to endure day after endless day of backbreaking physical work, continuous hunger, and a monotonous, mind-numbing existence. A person intelligent enough to pick up three new languages with no formal instruction. A young woman who somehow managed to keep the stars in her eyes, and whose belief in the possibility of a future allowed her to find love and happiness in the arms of a French prisoner and to survive a first pregnancy in the most terrible of conditions. A young mother who, in the photographs from those days, is strikingly beautiful, with her wavy black hair, blue eyes and full lips. A fascinating woman, with a fascinating story, and probably much more complex than she appeared…


the wild and glorious garden

Looking at her, the picture of contentment amid the roses and hollyhocks of her wild and glorious garden, I once remarked that she must have been over-joyed to leave the cramped apartment in the 10th arrondissement to start a proper life with her husband and children in the peace of the countryside.

I was unprepared for her answer.

‘Ah, Paris…’ Her eyes lit up. ‘Vous savez, Paris, c’est autre chose…’

‘Paris is different,’ she told me. ‘In another life, I would have loved to live in Paris…’

Never under-estimate a woman. Never under-estimate Paris.

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Josefa and Robert.

“They had been on a school trip to Paris with the French Society, Mademoiselle Pinaud at the helm, chaperone and cultural guide. Paris, city of light, city of romance. All the girls had been so excited that they’d whispered and chatted the whole night long as the coach trundled through the darkness, its beams illuminating black roads and shadowy forests. The journey had seemed endless.

Then a new day was breaking, dingy suburbs appeared in the dawn; they had reached the outskirts and were soon travelling along tree-lined boulevards where water gushed from metal fire hydrants and shopkeepers rinsed down the pavements with old-fashioned brooms. As the sun rose, gilding domes and rooftops, they began the magnificent procession down the Champs-Elysées.

Those few days had been magical. The visit to the Louvre, the statue of Venus rising majestically at the top of a flight of marble stairs, the stunning rose windows of Notre Dame, Monet’s waterlilies, the huge canvases swimming in light and colour…”

The Passage of Desire, extract.

Magical Paris. Grand staircase, Opera Garnier

The Passage of Desire: Behind every title, a story.

Entrance to the Passage du Désir, Paris. Photo courtesy of Patrice

‘Alexandra had frozen. Juliet grabbed her friend and pulled her underneath a stone arch leading into a cobbled passageway.

Dusk was falling. They were both feeling panicky now, turning to glance behind them from time to time, their hurried footsteps echoing on the cobblestones. But no-one followed. The street had a deserted air, like an abandoned film set; the tall buildings that lined either side were dark and lifeless, no lights showing, the only illumination coming from old iron lamps hanging from brackets above closed doorways.

Somewhere a distant church clock chimed the hour. Cinq à sept. The expression sprang into Juliet’s mind. ‘Five-till-seven’, the name the French gave to that cloudy window in time between leaving work and returning to the conjugal home, those delicious, illicit hours when lovers slipped into nameless hotels and creaking beds, tasting together the forbidden fruit of adulterous passion

The end of the passage came in sight, opening on to another busy boulevard with flashing neon lights and lines of jammed cars. Increasing their pace, relieved now, they both glanced instinctively to the left where a light stood out, a solitary illuminated rectangle in the dark façade. To its right, a door stood half-open beneath a flickering sign. ‘Hôtel’. They stopped abruptly, unable to tear their eyes from the scene on the other side of the window.

Turning the corner, Alexandra exhaled, closed her eyes for a second then opened them. The glow of a streetlamp fell on the metal plaque affixed to the wall.

Passage du Désir.

The Passage of Desire.

(Extract from The Passage of Desire)

Passage du Désir’. What a perfect name for an imaginary street in Paris where two naïve young English girls glimpse an erotic scene through the half-shuttered window of a shady hotel…

Except that the street is real, and if you take a trip to Paris you can find it in the 10th arrondissement, not far from the Gare de l’Est Metro station, a narrow, ancient thoroughfare bisected by the bustling boulevard de Strasbourg.

Previously known as Allée du Puits/Impasse du Puits, (‘puits’ meaning a well), it acquired its current name in 1789. Why the change to a passage named Desire?  A browse through the history books is an invitation to let your imagination wander. Was the passage, as some rumours have it, home to a ‘maison de passe’ (brothel) for officers in Napoleon’s army? A place where, for the space of a few hours, they could forget about the horrors of war in the soft embrace of a lady of the night?

Entrance to the Passage from the Boulevard. Photo courtesy of Patrice.

A certain M. Lefeuve, in 1863, describes it as leading to a ‘place of pleasure’, referring to one or more of its small hotels in which ‘gallantry had set up shop’. Adding spice to the mix are the names of neighbouring streets: la rue de la Fidelité, la rue de Paradis – one the reward of the other? Or the two, alas, incompatible? And not far away lies the rue Saint-Denis, one of the oldest red-light districts in Paris.

But it was not while exploring the streets of Paris that I first came across the name. The Passage du Désir is part of the history of le Maître de Maison (MDM), whose role as Master of the House has been mentioned at various times on this blog (bat-catcher, dog-trainer, descendant of Périgord Man). It was in this cobbled passage that his grandfather (member of the Périgord branch) had found a place to live when he came to Paris from the country, in search of work.

‘The street had a deserted air, like an abandoned film set.’ Passage du Désir, photo courtesy of Patrice

Recalling visits to Grand-Père’s appartment in the late 1950s, the young MDM hardly gave a thought to the name of the street. Instead, these visits were marked by two vivid and unforgettable childhood memories: the Terrifying Ordeal of the Water Closet and the Unrivalled Pleasures of the Source.

The water closet ordeal was a trial that had to be endured when, after wriggling uncomfortably for ten minutes on a hard wooden chair in Grand-Pere’s gloomy kitchen you realised with a sinking heart that the inevitable could no longer be put off. You Just Had To Go.  Along the narrow corridor, through the squeaking door, and into the dim recesses of the WC, in which was enthroned the ancestral toilet. But where was the cistern, with its handy little flush button you tugged on when you’d finished? This was a different set up altogether. A pipe ran upwards from the toilet bowl; at its top, amid the cobwebby rafters, lurked a menacing contraption to which was attached a rusty chain. The result, when you finally summoned the courage to stand on tiptoe and pull it, was a mini-explosion, a deafening roar signalling a torrent of foaming water surely unrivalled even by the mighty falls of Niagara (read about with interest in The National Geographic Magazine).  Hearing the first distant rumble, you just had time to wrench open the door and run like the devil back to the kitchen, escaping yet again the perils of the  whirlpool of Charybdis frothing up the sides of the bowl…

But the unpredictable hasards of bathroom trips were worth braving for the almost unbearable anticipation of what lay in store on the boulevard itself, before turning into the Passage.

Number 60, Boulevard de Strasbourg. Ali Baba’s cavern, an emporium of dreams for children big and small, packed with the most amazing, the most desirable, the most exciting objects imaginable. Flying machines, sailing ships, trains, steam engines, Dinky toys to drool over and yearn for, balsa wood models to build at home, spread out on a newspaper-covered table, pot of glue to hand…

You had arrived at The Source.

A La Source des Inventions.

1958 catalogue of the dream emporium, ‘A La Source des Inventions’, Paris. Photo courtesy of Joël,

To be continued….

I’d like to thank two very generous people I found on my Internet searches and contacted about re-using their photos. They both responded immediately, granting  not only permission, but offering further help if needed:

-Patrice, who gave me all the photos from his Tripadvisor review of the Passage. Travellers, check out his reviews, plus his amazing collection of 25 000 photos, many of Paris, at

-Joël, who offered to re-scan the photos on his website to give me better quality images. Joël can be found at le Site des trains-jouets, a must for all classic model train enthusiasts (oh you Hornby fans), versions in English and other languages as well as French.

Merci Messieurs! 😉