Cabinet of Curiosities: Buying non-touristy stuff in Paris

The most common questions that people ask me about life in Paris:

  1. How come nobody in Paris speaks English?  (How come explained in the English notes below.)
  2. How come whenever I try to speak to people in Paris in French, they always answer me in English?
  3. Aren’t you afraid of terrorist attacks?
  4. Where can I buy non-touristy souvenirs?

(1) and (2) are, of course, contradictory, and I’ve written about them before (and will again, ’cause it’s super-complicated).  I’ve written about (3), too, and no, I’m not–every 3 days in the US, we have more gunfire deaths than Paris had in its worst terrorist attack in history.  I literally have a greater chance of being shot to death in a road rage incident on my way to work in the US than I do of dying in a terrorist attack in Paris.  Seriously.

(4): a question that I love to answer.  Today I’ll tell you where to buy non-touristy souvenirs in Montmartre.

Before there were museums, there was the cabinet of curiosities–le cabinet de curiosités.  If you were powerful, or maybe just really rich, your cabinet of curiosities was where you showed off your collection of … interesting stuff.  Mostly stuff from the natural world.  A narwhal’s tusk, say; rare stones; perhaps some fossils.  Showing it off was the point.  As Wikipedia puts it:

The Kunstkammer (cabinet of curiosities) of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (ruled 1576–1612), housed in the Hradschin at Prague, was unrivalled north of the Alps; it provided a solace and retreat for contemplation[3] that also served to demonstrate his imperial magnificence and power in symbolic arrangement of their display, ceremoniously presented to visiting diplomats and magnates.[4]

Montmartre is a neighborhood in the northern part of Paris.  As you might expect from the name Montmartre, it has an elevation, and at the peak of that elevation is one of Paris’s most popular tourist attractions: Sacré Coeur, “Sacred Heart,” France’s way of saying it’s sorry that Paris seceded from it in 1871.

I jest–bitterly: Sacré Coeur expresses France’s wish that Paris would say that it’s sorry that it seceded in 1871.  Sacré Coeur is reactionary France’s way of putting words in Paris’s mouth–specifically, an apology for having seceded from France in 1871.  As if it weren’t enough that the Versaillais (the soldiers of the national government) killed 20,000-ish Parisians when they retook the city.  La semaine sanglante, it’s called–The Bloody Week.

img_5991Descending from the aforementioned elevation on a Sunday-afternoon walk the other day, I came across Grégory Jacob and a truly delightful place to buy non-touristy stuff in Montmartre.  Curiositas is a charming little store in the style of a 19th-century cabinet of curiosities, complete with a nice selection of marlin snouts–far more practical in a little Parisian apartment than a narwhal tusk, and just as pointed.

Grégory spent 20 years as an optician before the insurance companies sucked the joy out of the profession, at which point he decided to become a boutiquier (see the French notes below for some subtleties of the terminology of shop-owners) and opened Curiositas.  His new profession lets him pursue his passions–la chine, la brocante, les curiosités, l’ostéologie, l’entomologie–in the very neighborhood where Gabriel loses his glasses and delivers his monologue in Zazie dans le métro.  

Picture source:

And all of those passions are represented–the wares on offer include skulls, bugs, and the super-cool apparatus for drinking absinthe.  (Who knew that there are nifty devices for holding the sugar cube over which you pour la fée verte, “the green fairy”–absinthe itself.  Hell, I didn’t even know that you pour it over a sugar cube.  Hell, again: I didn’t even know that they still make the stuff.)  You need coasters with anatomical organs on them?  Grégory’s got them.  An emu egg?  No problem.  Skulls?  Curiositas has both carnivores and herbivores.  You’re tired of the Montmartre crêpe shops, wannabe artists, and fabric stores?  Step into Curiositas.  Tell Grégory the weird American guy says hi.  Scroll down past the pictures for the English and French notes.

How to prepare absinthe. Picture source: By Eric Litton – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

English notes 

how come: an informal way of saying why.  Examples:




“Trex” is “T-rex,” Tyrannosaurus rex. The dinosaur with enormous fangs and tiny little arms.

French notes

le boutiquier :  shopkeeper.

le commerçant : shopkeeper, retailer.

le magasinier : l’employé qui s’occupe d’entreposer, ranger des marchandises dans un entrepôt. (Definition courtesy of Grégory)

9 thoughts on “Cabinet of Curiosities: Buying non-touristy stuff in Paris”

  1. Yup – they still make absinthe but it isn’t quite as potentially lethal as it used to be. I believe. Of course I have never partaken of the green elixir. Not that one, at least …. I did live in the home of Chartreuse for some time and the strongest of those though revolting is certainly plus sized potent …. I’m tempted by a Marlin snout I must say.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Nice post . I hate the Sacré-Coeur, for its pastry look (I only love Roman and Gothic cathedrals), but above all for its meaning, i.e. the intentions of those who had it built .
    Were you able to understand “Zazie dans le métro” ? For an Anglophone it is a performance ! The first word,”Doukipudonktan” is a challenge for a poor foreigner . Queneau, although not illiterate ha ha, tried to create the “Néo-français” .

    Boutiquier and commerçant are not exactly synonyms . A small shop is “une boutique” and un boutiquier works inside his boutique . Un commerçant is a seller, he can work on the web for instance . Moreover “un esprit de boutiquier”is a clearly contemptuous phrase, about someone deprived of generosity, always calculating, and especially about money . Napoleon’s famous quote about England was “une nation de boutiquiers” .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Zazie dans le métro was wonderful, although I will fully and cheerfully admit that I understood exactly NOTHING of the end of the book. Like, I have NO IDEA what the fuck is going on.

      Doukipudonktan is a wonderful expression, which I believe you introduced me to, actually. I say it as often as possible, which, thankfully, is not actually that often.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Cool paper–thanks for the link! I have never seen a claim about thematic roles in one sentence constraining anything about another, as in (14-17) and the surrounding discussion–that’s interesting.

      From a discursive point of view, I love soooo many things about this paragraph/sentence on page 924:

      Informants confronted with (21) tend to say that the bat in question is a nocturnal flying animal with aggressive intentions toward Ernest, if they accept the sentence at all.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. They are very common expressions you know . “Comment se fait-il que tu sois ici ? Tu étais censé être à Londres aujourd’hui !” Each time the speaker expresses his surprise in front of a situation that was not meant to be because of some known reasons, or in front of any unexpected, or incompréhensible, situation . “Comment ça se fait qu’il y ait de l’eau à l’intérieur de la voiture ?” “Comment ça se fait que Paul soit habillé en fille?” etc … Both expressions, the formal and the colloquial forms, have no grammatical connection with the following main part, they just show the surprise mixed with various possible connotations as in the examples above .


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