‘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?
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.
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.
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! 😉