by Matthew Cobb
The other week I was in Paris, visiting a student from my University who is studying Zoology and French, and is spending a year in Paris, working in my old laboratory at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, more commonly known as “Jussieu”. On my way to see him I took a brief journey that in the space of about 10 minutes raised issues of history, evolution, and what it means to be human.
From my hotel in Oberkampf (Hotel de Méricourt, very cheap and basic, but highly recommended) I decided to take the scenic route. I took the métro to Gare d’Austerlitz, a trip that includes one of those sudden surprises when the métro bursts into the sunlight, and – in this case – takes a lurching right hand turn and goes over the Seine (A on the Google Maps image below). This provides a great view upriver towards Notre Dame and downriver towards the new buildings at Bercy. On the other side of the river is the Gare d’Austerlitz (B, C), the beautiful gardens at the Jardin des Plantes (C, D), and the rather bleak seven storey buildings of the university (E).
Upstream of the Gare d’Austerlitz is the site of one of the forgotten horrors of the Occupation of France by the Germans. Unknown to most Parisians, then and now, there were three internment camps for Jews in the centre of Paris. Interned Jews were forced to work for a macabre process called Möbel Aktion (Operation Furniture). This involved stealing household effects from French Jews and shipping them to Germany. The richest pickings were taken by the Nazi hierarchy, while the remainder was supposedly distributed to those who had been made homeless because of bombing raids. The role of the hundreds of internees was to separate out the material that had been seized, parcel it up and load it ready for deportation. Sometimes, they found themselves handling personal effects that belonged to their own family.
One of those annexes was in two warehouses on the Quai de la Gare (B). The warehouses are long gone, replaced by some modern buildings. But there is a plaque marking the horror.
Leaving the station and crossing towards the Jardin des Plantes – created in the 17th century – there is one of my favourite sculptures: a life-size, and very green stegosaur (C).
As I’ve previously pointed out here, it’s not clear how the mysterious back-plates were arranged – were they off-set or were left and right plates in pairs? This sculpture has opted for a rarely-seen third option: slightly off-set. I’m not sure there’s any paleontological justification for this. This statue is even more impressive because it is, I reckon, the only stegosaur that can been from space. You can just make it out on Google Maps, in the centre of this image:
I don’t know how long the stegosaur has been there. I hope it was made before the war, as it would then have looked out on one of the happier events of the Occupation – its end. After the German garrison in Paris surrendered on 25 August 1944, as a result of the uprising of the Paris population and the arrival of the Allied forces (French and US), the Free French contingent, the 2nd Armoured Division (the Leclerc Division), drove its tanks, armoured cars and jeeps in the Jardin des Plantes for the night (D). One of the women ambulance drivers who accompanied them, Suzanne Massu, recalled in her memoires:
“That first night, everything was quiet in the Jardin des Plantes (…) or at least, almost quiet (…) from all around there were stifled sighs and ticklish giggles. Many Parisian women were too charitable to let our lads spend their first night in the capital alone.”
There are no plaques to commemorate this event.
As you walk along the quai Saint Bernard past the Jardin des Plantes, you can see various ostriches and dik-diks, the inhabitants of the Ménagerie – a rather sad zoo (D on the map). The oldest inhabitant of the zoo is a female orang-utan called Nénette. A couple of weeks before my trip I had seen a new feature film about her, called Nénette. Made by Nicolas Philibert, the director of the excellent Etre et Avoir (To Be and To Have) – a gentle documentary about life in a rural primary school – Nénette is very slow moving, as befits a film about an orang-utan.
For much of the film, the camera is centred on Nénette (there are no humans to be seen), and you hear the voices of visitors (and the noise of passing demonstrations). Sometimes crass, sometimes sympathetic, always thought-provoking, these comments are really what makes the film worth watching. Ultimately, it’s as much a film about us and our attitudes to animals as it is about Nénette. It’s really like sitting in front of an orang-utan enclosure for an hour or so, and just watching and listening. Which isn’t something we do enough of. You can see the English-language trailer here. Not as faithful to the film as the French trailer, IMHO, but there you go:
And then, less then 10 minutes after getting of the métro I was at Jussieu, going into the buildings on the quai Saint-Bernard (E on the map). Jussieu is built on the site of the old Halles au Vin – the wine market – which was destroyed in a final German bombing raid the night after the Leclerc Division rested up in the Jardin des Plantes. That same bombing raid destroyed the warehouses at Austerlitz too (the internees had been removed by the Germans two weeks earlier). The buildings on the quai Saint-Bernard were built soon after the war; most of Jussieu, however, was built after May 1968, incorporating a state-of-the art fire retardant: asbestos. After a great deal of struggle (and a number of deaths) the dangers of the asbestos was finally acknowledged and, over more than a decade, the site has been slowly decontaminated and rebuilt. I’m glad I worked in the older buildings.
Before going up to the top floor to see my student, I decided to visit an old friend on the first floor corridor of Bâtiment A, 7 quai Saint-Bernard. It’s a coelacanth, dredged up from the depths off Madagascar some time in the 1950s, I think. Anyone can get in to see this – security is non-existent. For a while we had a tramp sleeping outside the lab entrance… This is a pretty crappy picture, but then the poor old coelacanth is a bit sad, too. Gone is his (or her?) beautiful speckled deep blue coloration. Instead it looks pale and drained. Something is even leaking out of its body into the preserving liquid:
Here’s a fuller image, taken from Wikipedia (the colour on this isn’t right – it really is as pale as my picture shows):
Annoyingly, in the last week the Wikipedia elves have cropped this picture so you can’t see the full display any more. As you can just make out on my picture, the display shows our and the coelacanth’s common ancestor. What it doesn’t show, of course, is the fact that we now know there at least two exant coelacanth species – Latimeria chalumnae, shown here , and L. menandoensis, discovered on the other side of the Indian Ocean in 1998.
And with that, I got in the lift and went upstairs to see my student and some other denizens of Madagscar – ponerine ants that my pal Christian Peeters is studying, which occupy the niche filled by army ants on continental Africa. But that’s another story…