On The Road: Welcome to the Fish Bowl

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The view from Rue Cremieux. A. Hinkle photo.

By Annette Hinkle

For most of the year, my husband, daughter and I live in a traditional Cape Cod nestled amidst the wilderness of Northwest Woods. Because we’re fairly isolated, we don’t have “over the fence” conversations with neighbors (most of whom are weekenders anyway) and with no sidewalks, neighborly chats by the mailbox are virtually non-existent. Through rain and snow (lots of it last year) and gloom of night, we revel in the stillness of it all.

But for much of August, the three of us occupied a much different sort of abode — an adorable little house on Rue Cremieux, which is a tiny pedestrian street in the heart of Paris’s 12th arrondissement just steps from Gare de Lyon.

Named for Adolphe Cremieux who was instrumental in winning Algerian Jews the right to become French citizens in 1870, today the street is notable not for its namesake, but because it is a complete and utter Parisian anomaly. In a city known for grand boulevards and beautiful Haussmann-style apartment buildings in muted shades of grey and tan, Rue Cremieux is everything the rest of Paris is not.

First and foremost, it’s not a long street, just one single block. Nor is it particularly wide — only 20 feet or so from façade to facade. It’s diminutive size and pedestrian nature may explain why even the most seasoned Parisian cab drivers have no clue where it is.

But, as it turns out, practically everyone else in the world does.

That’s because Rue Cremieux is lined by a series of 35 identical attached townhouses built in the 19th century as worker housing. Each house is painted a different and brilliant color and from vibrant pink to lime green, no two are alike. Several have been adorned with trompe l’oeil murals featuring twisting vines, birds in flight and in one case a ginger cat jumping from a window sill (no doubt in homage to the actual resident cat who was frequently found lounging on our welcome mat).

Rue Cremieux is often compared to London’s Portobello Road, and I’m thinking it must be listed in every guidebook between here and Shanghai, because during our time there, it became apparent that practically every tourist in the city made a pilgrimage to visit us after seeing the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame.

Olivier, who owns #22 where we stayed for almost three weeks as part of our annual house swapping tradition, warned us about this. The house, which is painted a brilliant shade of blue, sits smack in the middle of the block and for some reason is high on everyone’s list of photogenic dreams. It’s adorned by colorful flower boxes on the second floor which, late in our visit, I took to over-watering whenever an oblivious tourist was lingering too long below.

But that came much later.

It all started on day one. I left the bedroom early in the morning and was on my way to the bathroom when I heard the chatter of several people who were clicking expensive sounding cameras from what sounded like inches away. Peering out the second floor window in my t-shirt and undies I could see the tops of their heads as they evidently discussed the quaintness of the scene in a tongue I did not recognize. Not wanting to permanently taint their memories (or find my way into their slide shows), I quietly backed away from the window with my uncombed hair and unbrushed teeth and hightailed it to the privacy of the W.C. which was hidden cleverly behind a bookcase.

The ginger chat of Rue Cremieux. A. Hinkle photo.
Rue Cremieux’s resident ginger chat. A. Hinkle photo.

Part of the exhibitionist nature of the house lay in the fact that although it occupies four floors with steep winding stairs connecting each level, the living space on each floor is miniscule. The house is probably no deeper than 12 feet front to back and the only windows, which are huge, face the street. So everyone, it seems, knows your business whether you are looking to share it or not.

It’s a little unsettling to live in a fishbowl and at first, we carefully slunk around in order to avoid detection. But after a while, we stopped caring.

For me, the turning point came the day an oblivious young tourist stopped by to conduct a full fledged selfie-shoot using our window ledge as the perch for her cell phone. The window was closed, so the glare must have kept her from seeing me sitting just three feet away on the couch facing the window. It was odd to watch this girl grin at me and toss her hair back and stick her butt out sideways while she rested her hands on her knees. I was so embarrassed for her that I almost went and opened the window to stop the madness, but her frequent accessory changes were mesmerizing. From Hermes scarves and bountiful sun hats to very cool sunglasses, she had great taste and evidently a sizeable budget and I couldn’t wait to see what else she had picked up during her shopping spree in Paris. I even called my daughter down from upstairs to watch the fashion show. The girl never had a clue we were there.

Besides the tourists, there were also professional photo shoots. Every day, camera crews and still photographers showed up with beautiful models, mediocre crooners and photo assistants in tow to record songs, tape TV segments or shoot magazine features.

As a result we soon transitioned from silent observers to bold exhibitionists. My husband began wandering the house in his tidy whities without a care in the world and upon returning after a day out, we’d happily fling open the windows whether a film shoot was going on or not. Frequently, we’d aim our own camera right back at them and at one point, a photo assistant with a bounce board rang our doorbell to ask if he could hang out the second floor window in order to direct some light toward the model below.

Of course we said yes (my husband is, after all, in the film business). Then we asked for 100 Euros. The assistant got the joke, even though it wasn’t in French, and that episode, ultimately, embodied the specialness of Rue Cremieux’s pedestrian-only lifestyle. The street had a friendly and casual air about it, far different than the Hamptons in August, and everyone took the comings and goings in stride.

One of our last nights on Rue Cremieux proved to be the busiest. Most of the neighbors who had left Paris for August had returned and shutters up and down the street were open wide. There were still plenty of sight-seers, but now, kids rode scooters, played badminton and chased the ginger cat from stoop to stoop. Because space is limited inside the houses, several residents had brought chairs and tables out to the street to socialize, smoke Gauloises and share wine and food with friends.

Olivier had explained that this was a tradition on the street — and on one particular night every June, the residents of all 35 Rue Cremieux townhouses come outside to share a communal meal in the middle of the street.

“Now there’s a great idea,” I thought as I wistfully watched the action and imagined the same thing happening one night a year on Sag Harbor’s Main Street.

Just think of it — a single annual evening given over to a meal shared by those of us who call the East End home. It would be a night for renewing old friendships, making new acquaintances and lamenting those we’ve lost over the course of the year. Maybe we could do it every fall as a way to recap the summer past and fortify ourselves for the long, lonely winter ahead.

Personally, I think it should become part of HarborFest’s newest tradition. And maybe one day, it will find its way into guidebooks the world over.

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