Last week, Junior’s grandma, Mutti, sent me a note after her Seattle visit during the Holidays. The message was written on a postcard and when I looked at it, I started smiling at the stern-looking lady glaring at me through her glasses. I recognized her instantly: 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 Véro (my dearest Véronique,)
A long, long time ago (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 people’s 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 loudly 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 (…)
Je vous embrasse,
Robert Doisneau, 1945
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 on the front door of the building. Not to worry: You may still get to peek inside her old loge (concierge’s apartment.) Wipe off your feet before stepping in, just in case!
|“The concierge is in the courtyard…”
(*) 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.