La Concierge (the Parisian concierge)

This story was first published in January 2013. It has been updated. 

La concierge aux lunettes – The concierge with glasses
Robert Doisneau, 1945

Last week, Junior’s grandma, Mutti, sent me a little note to thank me once again for her Seattle vacation during the Holidays. The message was written on a postcard, and when I looked at it, I started smiling at the stern-looking lady who was glaring at me through her glasses: la concierge.
Mutti has already shared stories and childhood memories with my readers. You may remember the moving letter she sent to her grandson about her experience as a young child during the German Occupation of Paris.
 
When I thanked her for the great postcard of the iconic French concierge, Mutti spontaneously replied with an email where she remembers a Parisian concierge she once knew. 
 
To most Americans, the word concierge conjures up the image of an elegant man, or woman, standing behind a counter, in a fancy hotel. Invariably polite, flexible, accommodating and resourceful, the concierge is trained to answer guests’ requests.
 

Michael J. Fox: Concierge
For  Love of Money (1993)

To French people, the word has a very different meaning. Why don’t I let Mutti tell us more about the iconic Parisian concierge?
 

The great Josiane Balasko
The Hedgehog (The Elegance of the Hedgehog, 2009)

 

Ma chère Véronique (my dearest Véronique,)
 
In ancient times (the years of my childhood,) and until the 1960s-1970s, a woman ruled the life of most Parisian buildings: la Concierge, nicknamed “la bignole” (*) by most tenants. Employed by the landlord – mockingly referred to as “le Proprio” (**) – la concierge ruled the building with an iron fist. She was in charge of collecting rent, a very important mission.

Her job was to ensure security; maintain the stairwell and the rest of the property; collect and distribute mail twice a day (there were two deliveries a day back then.) 
 
She lived in a small apartment located on the ground floor of the building, by the main entrance, “la loge.” From that vintage point, she could watch the comings and goings. Nothing escaped her. “La loge” was modest: Often, there was only one room, and the concierge used an outhouse located in the building courtyard (just like in the Middle Ages.) 
 

Concierge rue du Dragon,
Robert Doisneau, 1945

She kept a close eye on the children, little devils who tracked dirt inside the building with their muddy shoes and did not always say: “Bonjour Madame” when they entered the hallway.
 
My sister and I were often the targets of terse remarks (always repeated to our parents,) when we did not comply with her iron rule. We often sneaked in without a word and forgot to wipe our feet on the big doormat in the hallway… only to get reprimanded later.
 
Before WWII, late night visitors had to ask the concierge to unlock the front door to enter the building. This was called “demander le cordon.(***) As they walked past “la loge,” they were expected to identify themselves. The place was secure!
 
Our concierge had a horrible little dog named “Bijou” (Jewel) a nasty mongrel. He wore a bell-adorned collar; barked incessantly; jumped at my ankles and terrified me as a child. Many other Parisian concierges lived with cats. 
 

Le Chat de la concierge (the Doorkeeper’s cat)
Willy Ronis, 1947

When came the time to distribute the mail, she would hand out each envelope to the tenant while announcing in a stern voice: “You have a letter from…” 
 
Truth be told, she was not a bad person, and I will eternally be grateful to her for not disclosing our new address when my family left Paris during the German Occupation to hide in Dourdan (a small town outside Paris.) The Germans were actively looking for my father then. He had escaped their labor camps. 
 
Our family owes la concierge a lot, to this day. This is a debt we can’t repay (…) 
 
Mutti.”
 

Concierge
Robert Doisneau, 1945

Merci, Mutti, for enriching le Blog with another heartfelt, true story.
 
Dear reader, should you spot one of these signs on an old Parisian façade during a leisurely stroll, step inside the courtyard. La concierge is long gone, and has likely been replaced by a digicode (digital access panel.) But you may still get to peak inside her old “loge” (apartment.) Wipe off your feet before stepping in, just in case! 
 
A bientôt.

“The concierge is in the courtyard…”
(photographer unknown…) 
“The concierge is in the stairwell.”
(photographer unknown) 

 

Keywords:
(*) La bignole. French slang. The concierge. 
(**) Le Proprio. French slang. Le propriétaire. The landlord.
(***) Demander le cordon. Literally: to request the cord or string. The concierge pulled on a string from her apartment. The string released the front door lock so visitors could come in. 
 
For additional information: Iconic photographer Robert Doisneau (1912-1994) captured Parisian concierges at the end of WWII. Look them up here

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What did you think about this article? Let me know in the comment section below, (I love reading your messages and reply to most.) Don’t be selfish and share with a friend! Merci. Véronique (French Girl in Seattle)

51 Comments

  • What a wonderful real story! It brought (good) tears to my eyes, Veronique. Your mother in law sounds like a good, kind and fun woman. You are lucky to have her in your life. Beautiful post! And i love the photo of the concierge’s kitty! 🙂

  • Oh, this is another wonderful letter from Mutti! Thank you for sharing this with all of us, Veronique. My husband and I both enjoyed ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG. And thank you dear friend, for the wonderful book. I look forward to receiving it. I’ve sent you an email……..Congratulations on your Anniversary. I look forward to reading and following along in 2013. ~ Sarah

    • Dearest Sarah. Félicitations! I am so glad you won one of the books in last week’s Giveaway. I will be shipping it to you this week.

      Elegance of the Hedgehog was an interesting book, but I think I enjoyed the movie even more because Josiane Balasko was so perfect as “la Concierge…”

      Bonne semaine!

  • Great story and I love those black and white photos by Doisneau and especially the one of the boy and the cat.

    bon journee’
    Chris

  • What an absolutely stunning and very moving post to start off your third year of blogging. Even as an adult, the few remaining concierges that I have come across have scared me so I can only imagine growing up under the watchful eye of one! Merci, Veronique and to Mutti for her generosity as well.
    Speaking of thank yous, hooray! I am delighted to be one of your winners and will email you pronto!
    Here is to a wonderful year ahead for FGIS,
    Heather

    • You are welcome Heather. I once knew an “old-fashioned” concierge, and she scared the living daylights out of me, too!

      Félicitations on winning the Inès de la Fressange book. It will be heading your way this week and should reach Arles before long. I am glad it is going to a good home 🙂

    • Merci beaucoup Janey. As I mentioned above to another reader, I am fortunate Mutti is willing to share these stories with me and my readers. History is so important. Even though I grew up in a country that has a lot of respect for it, it becomes so much more real, interesting and “usable” when you meet someone who actually lived through some of the events… Thank you for stopping by!

  • bonjour veronique!! we have a kind of concierge in our building..she is known as “the guardian”. she delivers our mail, vacuums the stairwell, takes out the trash bins..oh and walks with me to the floor above us to complain about the noise. 🙂
    have a good day!

    • Bonjour Pam. Today’s “gardienne” is alive and well, and I guess she is la Concierge’s modern successor. La gardienne tends to be friendlier, and her role has shifted a bit: Once the war was over, and France was trying to get back on her feet, more and more people started buying real estate. Former tenants became landlords, and la Concierge did not have to spend so much time collecting rent anymore. Mutti may have to tell me a couple more stories about post-war France so I can write a “sequel” to this story…

    • Merci beaucoup Nana. Yes, that concierge was a kind and brave woman. She was probably under some pressure from the Germans or the French police to reveal the family’s new address when they disappeared. They knew she would have forwarded mail to them if nothing else. These were dangerous times. Yet, small heroic acts happened every day, even if nobody talks about them… but some people, like Mutti, remember.

  • Dear Veronique, I don’t recall if I read your mother’s D-Day letter before, tears. I heard so many stories from my Grandmother’s great friend who lived in Brittany and their town was destroyed.

    As to the concierge…actually my son’s building in Paris had one who was somewhat responsible for the loss of a lifetime of photographs. I’d piled all the albums, cards, newspaper clippings etc into a large, heavy box…and took it to my mail place in San Francisco for it’s long ocean voyage to France. When it arrived at the building 6-weeks later the building concierge for some reason refused it while my son was out and it started the return trip back to SF. The day it arrived at Filmore and Sacramento I was busy leaving town and had just run in to pick-up mail. I couldn’t carry it home, they really didn’t want it left there for a week, so I sent to my mother…thinking she could throw it in a closet till I thought how to resend and bypass the concierge. It never made it to her, and never returned to me.

    The only photos I have of my son and I were the few framed ones I always keep on my desk. Life…

    • Dear Suzanne. What a shame this happened to all your family pictures! La concierge – or la gardienne, I suspect, in that case – should have done better. I am guessing this was before the days of digital photography, when photos were hard to replace…

  • What a wonderful mother-in-law you have (and / or what a wonderful daughter-in-law you must be) to receive this kind of messages. I have also had some concierge experiences in previous flats (not where I live now). They have all been smiling and helpful, younger (and better-looking) than the ones we often refer to. They loved our kids, went to pick them up at school, when I or my wife couldn’t… I guess I’m also getting nostalgic! 🙂

    • Well, not all concierges are old and ugly, that’s true Peter. I am glad you clarified things a bit 🙂 I am not surprised to hear yours was a great help to the family. Concierges had a reputation for being protective of the buildings – and the tenants. Thank you for stopping by!

  • “Councièrge” en niçois. Je n’en ai jamais eu mais il y en a avait une chez ma grand-mère Parisienne, effectivement, une vraie terreur!Ici, elles sont juste “ficanasses” (=cancaneuses)
    “L’elegance du Hérisson” est un des plus jolis livres que j’ai lus ces dernières années (pas vu le film, allergique à J.B.)
    Ma crèche fait deux metres de long , certes , mais tu n’as vu qu’un tout petit bout de l’appartement.. :o)
    Heureux bloganniversary again!
    Grosses bises et à bientôt!

    • Bonjour Madame La Niçoise. “Ficanasse:” Je m’en souviendrai. On dirait bien une expression du Sud! 🙂

      Je ne suis pas fan de JB d’habitude, mais dans le Hérisson, elle était tellement parfaite! Tu devrais vraiment voir le film. Tu seras sans doute surprise…

      A bientôt.

  • I certainly do remember that moving letter from Mutti to your son and here we have another interesting story. I was not only fascinated to learn about the concierge but also Mutti’s escape to a safe place. I’m sure your mother-in-law has so many stories to tell – she could write a book and I’m sure it would be a best seller!
    PS Congratulations to the winners of the books.
    http://missbbobochic.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Thank you so much for sharing Mutti’s story. Wonderful story. It makes me remember
    Of my morher’s friend who worked and lived at a hotel in Toulouse. She worked the front desk. We would visit her during lunch time. I believe she had a cat. I was really young and don’t remember more than that. I love the photos you provided. 🙂

  • Thank you for this wonderful insight into the life of a concierge in Paris and yes! It is totally different to what I woul envision when hearing the expression Concierge.
    I’m sure Mutti would have many stories to tell and I’ve loved reading this one.
    Merci Beaucoup

    “All Things French”

  • You seriously offer the most fascinating posts in my google reader. And that’s saying a lot because I follow a TON of blogs lol. Now when I think of a concierge, my image is going to be a LOT different!

    PS. Your mother-in-law writes very eloquently. She’s clearly a very articulate and intelligent woman. 🙂

  • What a poignant story from Mutti. She has quite a way in telling her experiences. You are blessed to have her in your life.

    I love The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and have read it twice. I have not seen the movie, preferring to have my own literary images of this particular tale.

    Bises,
    Genie

  • j’ai donc appris “bignole” et “demander le cordon” (pour une parisienne issue de générations de parisiens, hmm, shame on me!). ps: “ma” concierge, euh pardon gardienne, a accroché dans sa loge une boîte de chocolats (vide je suppose) sur laquelle se trouve la reproduction d’un portrait de l’impératrice sissi!

  • I remember our concierge in our apartment building in Paris – she was nice though. When I would have to walk down the 6 stories, plus one to go to the cellar when we had the air raids going during the war, if I had forgotten my pillow she would bring me one, and if there were many air raids that night she would let me sleep in her loge rather than walk back up the 6 stories with my mum (my father could not go down as he was injured.) But you can tell your readers that there is a common expression “c’est une vraie concierge” meaning someone who talks a lot, or gossips.

    • Oooh, ma grande, I’m really late to the party on this one. What a wonderful post. My father spent the last 18 months of the war in a forced labor camp in Germany. He was liberated by the Americans, which is probably why he always had a soft spot in his heart for the WW2 GIs.

      Happy Blogger B-day, and many, many more.

      What great pictures, comme d’hab.

      bizzz, M-T

  • Ah, la bonne vielle concierge. I have known a couple since I came to live in France but in this age of digicodes and intercoms they have begun to disappear, slowly but surely.

    But the best concierge I ever had wasn’t just one, it was half-a-dozen. I used to live in a quiet and very narrow ‘passage du…’ type street in one of the poorer areas just on the edge of Bordeaux city centre. 19th century apartment buildings, cobbled streets, it was postcard France personified. That street also happened to be the workplace of Bordeaux’s older and as-French-as-they-get sex workers, who, of course, had a clientèle of local and older men, who would come by for company as much as anything else. They were wonderful women and I used to chat with them when I walked by on my way to and from home. It was impossible not to because they used to sit on little stools outside their apartments whilst waiting for clients.

    Better still though, was that they were the eyes and ears of the street and its activities. Sure they could be a bit too inquisitive at times, sure they would say unwelcome and matronly things like “ah? late for work again?” or “I’m not sure that you should park there because…” etc but they were a godsend nevertheless.

    The children of local residents loved their kind words and felt secure in their company, which is why – rare in the France of tody – their parents would allow them to play out in the street because they knew that they were under the watchful and protective eyes of the ‘concierges’.

    And it goes without saying that burglaries and similar crimes were almost none-existent there, because nobody entered or left that street without knowing that at least a couple of the concierges had seen them, and it would have been impossible for a stranger to walk out of a building carrying someone’s computer without being seen instantly and reported to the police.

    Yup, concierges. I for one love ’em.

  • Brilliant post Veronique, j’adore the Doisneau photos, such an inspiration for modern day photographers oui. I will definitely try and find ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’. Your family is so very fortunate to hear these stories of what life was like in those times from Mutti who lived them. I have a feeling that the ‘concierge’ was also a character known in England.

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