Circuses and an Origin Story

I was arguably most excited to visit the Musee des Art Forains, a private fairground museum in the Beray neighborhood of Paris. The museum had rebuilt a European fairground from La Belle Epoque, and given my fascination with old circuses, carnivals, and fairs, I had to see it.

 

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Musicians in the Metro

After a rushed breakfast, I hopped on the metro to the Beray quarter. At this metro stop, I would run into my most favorite musicians on the entire trip. A band of men were playing all manner of instruments including violins, accordions, guitars, clarinets, etc., and their Old World music and voices echoed through the tight halls of the metro. The sound was deep and enchanting, and the minor harmonies rolled in waves like the peals of a great bell. I was delighted to witness it. There is a lot of music on the Parisian metro, more so than I’ve seen anywhere else. Musicians will cart around speakers and their instruments and walk through metro cars playing. I always expected people to get annoyed, but it’s so normal to everyone I suppose, and I found it lovely.

 

The weather was cloudy and grey when I arrived at Beray. The neighborhood was quiet, and I followed whimsical carnival signs posted outside a massive brick wall the the small entrance to the museum.The ticket window was in a large tunnel that led to the main courtyard of the museum. Lighting was dim, so you could only just see the decorated horses and playing cards hanging from the ceiling. The tunnel opened suddenly into the courtyard and I was awash in fantasy. The sides of the buildings were overgrown with thick greenery. Giant trees popped up out of the brick path, dripping with lanterns and carousel horses, playing cards and acrobats. Giant signs over doorways read “House of Mirrors” or “Faireground of Venice”.

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Entrance to the Musee des Art Forains (Fairground Museum)

 

There was a large crowd of people waiting for the tour, mostly families. I was the only solo traveler, and the only foreigner. This was a bit off the beaten path for most foreign tourists. Our tour guide came out and I could tell he was hired for his show demeanor. He was exactly what I’d imagine a young, Old World ringleader to act like. I can’t remember his name, so I’ll call him Jacques, since that is a stereotypically French name and I don’t owe him any favors, really.

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Jacques led us expertly through the buildings in the tour. The museum itself was fantastic. I can only imagine these artifacts all alive and thriving during a veritable faire in La Belle Epoque. The rooms were the size of warehouses, dimly lit with booths and rides and decorations all restored. There were life-size paper mache elephants, carousels, and functioning game booths that Jacques positively insisted we all try. There were figures watching over us from balconies on high, organs that played impossible loud music on their own, old stages… I loved it.

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Riding a carousel

I was singled out quite a bit by Jacques for being American. It was slightly uncomfortable, and all I wanted to do was enjoy the tour quietly from the back, as I’m wont to do. Jacques had a showman’s attitude, and under wildly different circumstances, I’d invite him in a second to audition for the Virginia Renaissance Faire. He certainly knew how to work the crowd of families. He was almost like an exhibit himself, a shining example of a performer from that time. Despite singling me out as an American (I have a feeling he’d met many rude Americans on tours, sadly, but unsurprisingly), he serenaded me with Frank Sinatra and grabbed me to waltz on the floor to the tune of the organ.

I left the museum in a daze, other tour-goers wishing me well on my travels as we all went our separate ways. I wonder what they all thought of me, that lonely American woman who blushed far too easily and was slightly nervous about the carousels.

I returned to the center of Paris and got off at Bastille. There isn’t anything left of the infamous prison, which was a pity. Destroyed during the French Revolution, that piece of history is lost forever. In theory you can find the oddities left behind in the street and sidewalks in the area, but I didn’t see anything. I browsed some booths in what was left of a street market closing for the day, not willing to pay 10 euros to enter the more fancy one a block over. I made use of a public toilet on the street as well. These were fascinating to me – these little single-person toilets that were on street corners and cleaned themselves after each use. I felt so exposed using them, despite the mechanical voice assuring me the door was locked. But any port in a storm!

 

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Place des Vosges, Paris

After a leisurely lunch at a cafe, where I sat outside and watched dozens of policemen camped out on the street for no apparent reason and ate fried vegetables and steak frites, I walked over to Place des Vosges. Place des Vosges is a lovely residential square in the Marais neighborhood. With an elegant park in the center, the bottom level of the buildings are all fancy establishments or cafes, with incredibly lucky or wealthy people living above. I munched on a chocolate croissant as I walked around. I saw Hotel Sully, I think. I’m not honestly sure, since it was just a courtyard and signage was poor. I still don’t really know what it is. But then I found myself at the home of Victor Hugo, celebrated French author.

 

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Esmerelda at the house of Victor Hugo

Walking through his house and being intimately introduced to his life in that way finally inspired me to read more of his works. The rooms were elegantly furnished, full of intricate paintings and other artifacts from his life. My favorite was the painting of Esmerelda and her goat, which incidentally was on the cover of my newly purchased copy of Notre Dame de Paris. Most puzzling to me was the Oriental room, but I suppose famous writers have a duty to be eccentric.

I meandered back to Ile de la Cite at the center of Paris. I found myself outside Hotel Dieu, the hospital where I was born, right on the island in the middle of the Seine river. It’s still a working hospital, and would seem very large and imposing with it’s steep grey stone walls if not for the banners showcasing cheerful doctors hanging down. The hospital is steps from Notre Dame. It is in the heart of Paris, and I’m honored to have been born there.

On my way home I watched some incredibly talented dancers in front of Hotel de Ville. The artists in Paris will never cease to amaze me.

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Extremely talented dancers in front of Hotel de Ville, Paris

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