The Peculiar Poetry of Paris’s Lost and Found – The New Yorker

On the southern edge of Paris, a five-thousand-square-foot basement
houses the city’s lost possessions. The Bureau of Found Objects, as it
is officially called, is more than two hundred years old, and one of the
largest centralized lost and founds in Europe. Any item left behind on
the Métro, in a museum, in an airport, or found on the street and
dropped, unaddressed, into a mailbox makes its way here, around six or
seven hundred items each day. Umbrellas, wallets, purses, and mittens
line the shelves, along with less quotidian possessions: a wedding dress
with matching shoes, a prosthetic leg, an urn filled with human remains.
The bureau is an administrative department, run by the Police Prefecture
and staffed by very French functionaries—and yet it’s also an
improbable, poetic space where the entrenched French bureaucracy and the
societal ideals of the country collide.

Parisians d’un certain âge know the street on which it is located by
name. “Ah yes, on Rue des Morillons,” they’ll say wistfully when the
bureau is mentioned, a hint of melody to their voice. It is the street
where the legendary French singer Georges Brassens once lived (a small
park and vineyard abutting the building bear his name). The Bureau of
Found Objects would have made an interesting subject for Brassens, whose
lyric songs often railed against law enforcement (in his 1952 hit “Le
Gorille,” for instance, a gorilla escapes from a zoo and sodomizes a
heartless judge in his robes), or for his contemporaries Jacques Brel
and Serge Gainsbourg, who often mocked French bureaucracy. Instead, it
was Paul Braffort, a member of the Oulipo school and a close friend of
Raymond Queneau, who wrote a surprisingly romantic ode to the bureau,
titled “Rue des Morillons.” “Why don’t we open / Rue des Morillons / in
that large stockpile / an aisle for all the lost hearts / for all the
misplaced lovers / that are sent so gaily into oblivion?” he sings, in
French, in seductive simple rhymes. “Those who may have lost / Love,
joy, and even a little more / could then find each other / at the Bureau
of Found Objects.”

It is with a similar hint of romance that many French people d’un
certain âge
embrace this mythical public service, though those in the
younger generation, armed with smartphones and having never heard the
song, often do not know of its existence.

At 36 Rue des Morillons, the waiting room is bathed in light, and
appointed not with the plastic chairs of an American D.M.V. but with the
heavy wooden furniture of a nineteenth-century courtroom. The vast
majority of people arrive clutching envelopes. Whenever an item arrives
containing a mailing address (for example, an I.D. card in a wallet) the
bureau will mail a letter to its owner informing the person that it has been
found. Like many French civil services, the bureau still conducts
business mostly in person or through the post—tradition oblige. The
bureau does not have a dedicated number to call; a lone employee is
tasked with answering e-mails.

Alice Cavet arrived holding such a letter. She was assigned a number at
the arrivals desk and, minutes later, was called to window F, where a
woman handed her a red flower-patterned wallet. “Ah, mon Dieu, je n’y
croyais plus
!” she exclaimed—I no longer believed. She rushed over to
the large wooden table and began to pull out her credit cards and
business cards. She removed a small pouch and poured from it a metal
trinket—an amulet of the Virgin Mary that her mother had gotten
blessed for her at Lourdes.

Her wallet had been lost for ten months. She’d cancelled her credit
cards, and had all of her I.D. papers remade. Her mother had bought her
a new wallet, an exact replica of the red floral one but in blue. Still,
a grin spread across Cavet’s face. “The money is no longer here, of
course,” she told me, “But a girl’s wallet is filled with memories. The
letter from a friend, the seashell from the shore, which must be . . .”
She dug her fingers into a crevice. A tiny seashell fell out and rolled
across the table.

Again and again, I noticed the same gestures repeated in this space.
People checked their reclaimed items carefully, wondering at how their
possessions, even after being lost, retained the markings of their
private lives. A girl pulled handfuls of scarves and crumpled pages of
homework out of an overflowing handbag. Two women marvelled that the
contents of a recovered coat remained in place—a key ring, a
handkerchief, a hard candy. An older man sat alone, turning a business
card over and over between his hands before silently replacing it in his
wallet and leaving. The unspoken rule of city life that only the crazy
speak to strangers did not hold in this room. People struck up
conversations easily, commiserating in the state of losing and seeking,
or sharing in the joy of finding. “Je n’y croyais plus,” people said
aloud, to themselves and to one another. “Look, Pierre!” a woman said to
her husband, whose wallet had been pickpocketed at a Métro station.
“This is the receipt from the day you lost it. This was the day you went
out to do your shopping!” The mundane takes on significance when it is
lost and then returned.

An employee stooped to the floor to pick up a key ring on a length of
rope. “A found object!” she exclaimed, as she returned it to its owner,
who laughed, ashamed. The bureau’s director, Patrick Cassignol, told me
that people who come to claim one object very often lose another in the
process. Perhaps, he theorized, “L’émotion favorise l’étourdi”—emotion
leads to forgetfulness. Or, perhaps, there are those who are simply
destined to lose, a breadcrumb trail of belongings left in their wake.

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