It’s amusing to realize, when I respond to people who posit that I must have been around when Les Halles was the center of food distribution in town not the center of drug sales, that thinking back on my experiences, it was no big deal.
When I came with my Experiment in International Living group in 1953 with our very special and fabulous leader Paul Chassé, in addition to taking us (on money he had sequestered from our trip expense kitty) to the Tour d’Argent (at age 18, to go to the most famous restaurant in Paris and have a numbered pressed duck, oh boy!) and Maxim’s (years before Gigi, but with all the swells in black and white tie), he offered to lead us on a tour of what was then the central market of Paris.
At 3 or 4 in the morning we got there somehow (and I always thought the Metro stopped at 1 AM) and walked through the iron worked pavilions designed by Victor Baltard, some of whose fragments remain up in Nogent sur Marne (for food folks, it’s conveniently located right near the magnificent resto Les Magnolias in Le Perreux).
So we got there, and walked through and by the meat, fish, vegetable and fruit stands and areas; as I said it was not big deal. Sure we’d all read Zola’s 1873 Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris) and noted the barrels of burning wood (even in August) and smalls and yes, rats, but it was normal, just there, no big deal.
And, of course, Paul then took us to one of the dozen café-bistros serving onion soup and such all night (of which only the Pied du Cochon remains, I believe, whose soup was pretty pathetic when I returned a decade ago).
In any case, we then trekked home, somehow, got up as usual – we were adolescents after all, and Les Halles was just one more thing we had experienced – no big deal.
Watching Telematin’s Carinne Teyssandier or Mr. Ex-Fatty (aka Vincent Ferniot) walking through Rungis in puffy coats holding up melons or cutting into tomatoes or explainig the differences between different colored carrots or beets just doesn’t come close to what Les Halles was like – it’s almost antiseptic.
And when I hear French and Americans talk today about Les Halles as it was before it became the world’s grubbiest, gypsy-infested mall I share the nostalgia, it was rather grand, but after all – it was no big deal.