In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell describes my Paris neighborhood as “a ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all been frozen in the act of collapse.” Orwell changed the street name to Rue du Coq d’Or. Take another look. It’s Rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest streets in Paris. It’s hardly a slum now, but many of Orwell’s memories, like the sour reek of the refuse-carts and drunken singing in the middle of the night, are vividly present today. I marvel at the fact that George Orwell once prowled the streets there, as did John Calvin and Rabelais before him.
Down and Out in Paris and London begins with Madame Monce screaming at one of her tenants, “How many times have I told you not tosquash bugs on the wallpaper? Do you think you’ve bought the hotel, eh?” Orwell foes on to explain why the proper disposal of bugs was a communal concern:
My hotel was called the Hotel des Trois Moineaux. It was a dark,
rickety warren of five storeys, cut up by wooden partitions into forty
rooms. The rooms were small arid inveterately dirty, for there was no maid, and Madame F., the PATRONNE, had no time to do any sweeping. The walls were as thin as matchwood, and to hide the cracks they had been covered with layer after layer of pink paper, which had come loose and housed innumerable bugs. Near the ceiling long lines of bugs marched all day like columns of soldiers, and at night came down ravenously hungry, so that onehad to get up every few hours and kill them in hecatombs. Sometimes when the bugs got too bad one used to burn sulphur and drive them into the next room; whereupon the lodger next door would retort by having his room sulphured, and drive the bugs back. It was a dirty place, but homelike, for Madame F. and her husband were good sorts. The rent of the rooms varied between thirty and fifty francs a week.