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  • Writer's pictureKate Woodman

L’Orangerie Parc du Bagatelle, les femmes de la nuit et moi

Updated: Feb 16, 2020

Monday, 8 July 2018

File this in the « funny/naïve/embarrassing story » category. I’m writing in English because I’m exhausted from my afternoon in the Bois.

So it was another beautiful day here in Paris. We’ve been having exceptionally warm and sunny weather and virtually no rain for weeks now. As I had nothing on my calendar until 6:00 this evening, I decided to visit the Orangerie in the Parc du Bagatelle which is part of the better-known Bois de Boulogne. The Bois de Boulogne is a large public park located along the western edge of the 16th arrondissement of Paris. I’ve been there several times….a friend introduced me to an organized group that walks there every Monday and Thursday morning for 2 hours and I participated a few times….but that was last fall and I’d not seen the Orangerie. I recently met an artist who is exhibiting her work there and thought it would be interesting to see the exhibition as well as the Orangerie itself and the surrounding gardens.

Stock photo of l'Orangerie Parc du Bagatelle

Before setting out, I put the address into City Mapper, the fabulous navigational app that always gets me where I need to go. City Mapper told me it would take about an hour and that I needed to take the Metro and then a bus, or alternatively, I could skip the bus and walk the last 30 minutes. The artist had told me it was not the easiest place to get to, and that I might want to take an Uber car. She mumbled something about prostitutes on the street along which I’d have to walk.

When I got out of the Metro at Porte Maillot I saw the stop for the bus, but the weather was so nice and I was in a park….why not have a nice stroll through the park away from the hustle and bustle of Central Paris? I thought about the prostitutes but figured that, since it was 1:00 in the afternoon, I wouldn’t see any. Also, for those of you who don’t know the Bois de Boulogne, it’s on the edge of the 16th, a wealthy and posh neighborhood. So I’m in a park, in a posh neighborhood in the middle of the afternoon, on my way to see paintings of flowers in a rose garden. Prostitutes?

City Mapper tells me it’s a 30 minute walk. It’s a wide street. There’s a paved bike path next to the street and narrower unpaved path between the bike path and the trees. I don’t see any bikers, so I use the bike path. I then think better of it and move to the path by the trees. I seem to have both paths to myself…I smile thinking I’ve gotten away from the tourists. I notice a well-endowed, scantily-clad woman standing in the path about 20 feet in front of me. She’s just standing there, obviously not going anywhere. I keep walking and pass several more similarly clad women. They don’t look at me and I don’t look at them. I had read somewhere that the Bois de Boulogne prostitutes work out of vans, but I don’t see any. These women, however, are clearly prostitutes…so much for my theory that they only work at night!

After about 25 minutes and no Orangerie in sight, I consult City Mapper again. I need to turn onto Allée de la Reine Marguerite. And now I’m right in the thick of it! Vans and cars on both sides of the road. The women sit on folding chairs by their vans or stroll back and forth along the road. They are all heavily made up with long hair. Many are women of color. Most wear short-shorts and revealing tops. Most are quite buxom and curvacious. I’m thinking about how overweight these women are…big boobs…what men like. And about my lifelong struggle to keep the pounds off…the irony. Most are alone but a few are in pairs. One is showing her friend a wig and they laugh. As I pass two who are talking, I hear a deep, male voice…trans. One has a dog. Some glance at me. I smile when they do, feeling ridiculous. One very thin young woman actually “bonjours” me and I “bonjour” back. What must they be thinking I muse? I am the only person (male or female) actually walking along this road with someplace to go. They must think I’m a stupid, lost tourist and in some ways I am. Not exactly lost but not exactly finding my destination. I continue walking and a car slows down and stops about 30 feet in front of me. Is he stopping for me I wonder? I decide to keep walking with my eyes straight ahead. I walk past the car. Nothing happens. He pulls slowly away and I feel relieved. [I told this story to Patrick yesterday and we shared a good chuckle about it].

I finally reach the end of the road, turn right and walk into the lovely, bourgeouis suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt . I’m walking up a wide, tree-lined boulevard with large homes and gardens on one side and the Bois on the other. How can two such different worlds co-exist in such close proximity I wonder. Not that the prostitute-lined road was so awful or dangerous, but the contrast is startling.

I consult City Mapper again and it keeps telling me I’m 9-10 minutes from my destination. I’m back in the Bois and walking past tented campsites and the Longchamp Racetrack. After about 20 minutes, I give up, turn around and walk a different, much shorter way to the Metro.

Didn’t get to see the Orangerie or my friend’s flower paintings, but it was an interesting afternoon just the same. And that’s Paris….you never know what you’ll find around the corner, or for me on Monday, along the side of the road.

N.B. As I am wont to do, when I returned home from my afternoon with the ladies of the day in the Bois, I did some research. Although prostitution itself is not illegal in France, soliciting is. Nonetheless, for years prostitutes have thrived in the Bois de Boulogne, and every Parisian knows it (now I do as well). I read an article written by a photographer who spent 3 years talking to the women who work there documenting their working lives. Apparently there’s a day shift and a night shift. The day shift begins in the morning when the women arrive either by bus or driving their own cars or vans. First they set up their workspace….a tent in the woods (this must have been where the women I first saw worked as there were no cars or vans parked along the road), or the interior of their car or van. They cover the windows, plump the pillows and light incense (I could smell it as walked past). They apply their make-up and change their clothes, or as the photographer wrote….”just get undressed.” They work until 5:00 and then the night shift takes over. The photographer observed that their setting up and making up takes on an almost ritualistic quality….allowing the women time to transition from their real lives to their lives as prostitutes.

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