When I write about Paris, it’s often in praise of older buildings and monuments. It’s hard not to do that, since this 2000 + year old city is like a time capsule, especially for my favorite era, the Belle Époque. But there are many modern constructions in the City of Lights. The difference is, unlike places like New York, here, the ancient, old, modern, and contemporary live harmoniously side-by-side.
The example par excellence that all Parisians like to bring up is the pyramid in the Louvre courtyard, created by I.M. Pei in 1983-1989. Though it sounds dubious, the glass and metal structure miraculously provides a beautiful aesthetic experience, contrasting yet harmonizing wonderfully with the Renaissance-era architecture that surrounds it.
One of my favorite modern constructions in Paris today is the automat on the rue de Wattignies.
The automat is located in the souteast of Paris, the 12th arrondissement, near the large, beautiful Parc de Bercy, where you can find huge stretches of gardens and greenery – and yet another example of the contemporary and classic co-existing peacefully:
The current location of the legendary Cinémathèque Française, designed by Frank Gehry, originally to house the American Center, 1993.
Detail of Gehry’s trademark dramatic curves and jutting angles above the entrance.
Just a few hundred meters away is the Maison du Jardinage. Used today as a small public garden center, it dates to around the 18th century, when the village of Bercy was the wine depot of Paris.
Back to the automat: It isn’t the only one if its kind in Paris, a fact that its name gives away: “YatooPartoo” is a phonetic, informal or infantile pronunciation of the phrase “Il y a tout partout.” – “There’s everything everywhere.” I think the idea of the phrase is, you can get a lot of products from the automat at any time of day or night –and in many different locations. According to my sources, there are more than a dozen in Paris, and some in other French cities and suburbs, too.
But they’re still spread out enough to seem rare here – and those I’ve passed, knowingly and unknowingly, usually blend in so well with their surroundings that you’d have to really be looking to know they’re there. For example, while doing research for this post, I found out there’s apparently a YatooPartoo one street away from the building where I used to live, before moving in with the boyfriend. I was in that neighborhood for 3 years, and never did I notice the YatooPartoo automat.
Which is probably good, because I’m absolutely fascinated by them, and would have spent a lot of money there, just to see the robotic shelf fetch my soda or chicken sandwich or something.
Why am I so fascinated by automats? I love hidden worlds, parts of everyday life that no longer exist today. When I was younger and first read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, one of my all-time favorite books, I was intrigued by the fact that runaways Claudia and Jamie eat a meal at a New York automat. I remember learning that this was a whole restaurant with vending machines that served heated meals, and thinking how, though I’d been to New York with my parents many times, I’d never seen such a place. Somewhere along the line, I must have come across historic photos of automats, and I fell in love with their vintage look, taken from another time, and the strange idea of being served by a machine, rather than a person (this was long before I went to Tokyo, or used a self-check-out at the supermarket…). What sealed the deal was the day my father happened to tell a story about being a little boy in the late ‘50’s or early ‘60’s and going into the city with my beloved grandpa and having lunch at an automat. I felt a personal connection – two generations of Salzberg’s had actually eaten at these places. I remember asking my foodie dad how the meals at the automat were. It was hard to think of vending machine food –or anything edible involving robots – being particularly savory. But he said they were pretty good.
Automat, New York City
photography by J. Baylor Roberts, 1942
from the National Geographic Image Collection
By the time I came to live in New York, the age of the automat was long gone. According to research I did today, automats weren't completely mechanical, but involved a huge teams of cooks behind the scenes, who would slide fresh food into the compartments - no robots necessary. Unfortunately, the manpower required to keep the automat running proved too high a cost. This is one of the main reasons why the last New York automat closed in 1991. A new automat was opened in 2006, but closed three years later due to lack of interest. Too bad I wasn’t living in the city at that time, because I might have been able to keep it in business!
The first Paris automat that I saw – and I should be careful and say that the YatooPartoo machines only have cold drinks and other grocery and toiletry products, and don’t serve hot meals, AND truly are completely mechanical – was on the Boulevard Arago. I was walking with my friend N., when the illuminated shelves caught his eye. He was so excited about it. I myself remember feeling a little put off by the not-very-aesthetic or retro design – but I still appreciated N’s enthusiasm, and realized more than ever that this guy was truly a kindred spirit. (I’m happy to say that years later we’re still friends and that I’ll be going to his wedding next month – automat appreciation is a tie that binds.)
Years later, a YatooPartoo automat would come into my life again.
My boyfriend and I met because we love to go to the movies. The UGC Ciné Cité Bercy, one of the biggest cineplexes in Paris, is located just off the Parc de Bercy – making it a perfect place for a weekend jaunt, with the pretty (though, for me, allergen-filled) walk through gardens, then the restored complex of centuries-old chais (stone buildings for making and storing wine) that lead to the movie theater.
One day, while wandering around the area outside the park and neighborhood of Bercy, we were on the rue de Wattignies when I peered into what looked like an unmarked storefront.
In yet another mix of contemporary and old, the "storefront" on the left of this pre-Haussman building
The facade seen from across the street.
To my delight, I realized it was a YatooPartoo automat!
Buying a Cherry Coke at the automat has become a tradition each time we go to Bercy. Not just because it’s so cool to see the automat’s metal shelf slide over to what we want and get it for us. Not just because there’s nothing quite as refreshing as a cold (the automat is refrigerated) Cherry Coke. In a way, it’s our little gesture to keep the automat alive. Though the products inside are new and constantly restocked, and the parts look pretty modern, we figured the automat was a relic from a fading era, and not one of Paris’ most famous or celebrated. Every time we stepped onto the rue de Wattignies, we feared the automat would no longer be there.
Step 1: After making our selection (Vanilla Coke today, since there weren't any more Cherry Cokes), we put in our money (you can also pay by credit card).
Step 2: We excitedly watch the metal beam and bin on the right of the display window as it begins to glide sideways towards the Vanilla Coke.
Step 3: The metal bin goes up the beam until it reaches the Vanilla Coke, high on a shelf. One Vanilla Coke bottle is released, and drops into the bin.
Step 4: The beam and bin, actually a robot of sorts, glides quickly back to its place on the right of the window and disappears. No one would ever know it was just getting us a Coke.
Step 5: We reach into the bin below the area where we put in our money, and our cold Vanilla Coke is waiting for us! Thanks, automat!
Okay, it may not be as cool and elaborate as an old New York automat, but it's still pretty neat, at least for us, at any rate.
While getting some information for this article today, I learned something very surprising - and reassuring: these automats don’t date to the mid-20th century at all – they were created by an entrepreneur in the year 2000! YatooPartoo is a franchise, and apparently many of the locations, some of which hold up to 2500 products in no more than 25 square meters (269.10 sq feet) of space, do quite well.
So hopefully our beloved automat and its ilk are here to stay. …Though we’ll probably keep buying a Cherry Coke every time we pass, just to be sure….