In the video, you learned that Louis XVI decided to build a tax wall around Paris. So from 1785, the Farmer’s General wall separated Belleville from Paris. It wasn’t until 1860 that the wall came down and the 20 districts we know now were created.
Cabarets and theaters
But until then, construction materials, heating fuel, and food and drink were taxed as they entered Paris. And as I mentioned in the video, everyone quickly understood that it was much cheaper to eat and drink on the outside of that tax wall !
Parisians and Bellevillois alike flocked to the area’s brand new cabarets, theaters, and goguettes or singing clubs, which provided inexpensive entertainment for the working class. People gathered, ate, drank, and danced in all the leisure establishments that literally pressed up against the Farmer’s General wall.
Nearby, a fair stretched out along the boulevard, where people watched animal tamers and flame throwers, listened to singers with accordions (known as “suspender pianos”) and bet on street fighters. They ate waffles and apple turnovers, and theater actors’ flamboyant costumes enchanted the crowds. Belleville also had fireworks displays, an artificial lake, and theme parks.
Belleville even had its own Mardi Gras festivities from 1830 to 1839, complete with disguises, drinking, and dancing ‘til dawn. The revelers you see in the video excerpt from Marcel Carné’s film Les enfants du paradis, which takes place in 1828, are actually in a nearby theater district to the west known as the boulevard du Crime. But the same types of wild parades and street parties were going on in Belleville during that period.
By the late 1800s, alcoholism was rampant in Belleville. Absenteeism from work on Mondays was high : after spending Sunday with their families, men would actually make the rounds in the various taverns of Belleville. It was called “celebrating Saint Monday” (fêter le Saint-Lundi). The cartoon below is from a satirical magazine called L’assiette au beurre, in publication from 1901 to 1936. Its caption reads : "What a strange wind ! I can hardly stand, and yet the leaves aren’t moving."
But all sorts of people went to the local cafés, not just working men. Sometimes women attended the cafés with their husbands on Sundays, but more often, women went with their boss and colleagues, and drank a zézette, the simple mix of absinthe and white wine for which you’ll find the recipe below.
Did you say zézette ?
But just what is a zézette, anyway ? If you ask any French person (or any bartender for that matter) for a zézette, they’ll look at you as if you were crazy. Children are more likely to use the word zézette when they’re referring to…. Well, how to put this ? They’re talking about lady parts.
In fact, the zézette is also a type of cookie from the city of Sète, near Montpellier in the south of France. Viewer discretion is advised, but you may click here for a photo of the potentially offensive cookie. See what I mean ? Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather pour myself a nice turn-of-the-last-century lady’s drink, rather than eat cookies that look like lady parts. You decide !
For hours of operation and other details, see the Aux Folies web site.
Thanks go to M. Boissy of L’Art Nouveau for permission to use the map of the Farmer’s General wall.
And for francophones who are looking for a thorough web site on absinthe, please go to Le musée virtuel de l’absinthe for pages and pages of interesting documents and history.