Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
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Paris, France
Birthday
December 31
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Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
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www.alysasalzberg.com
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A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out www.alysasalzberg.com.

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Editor’s Pick
MAY 20, 2011 12:24PM

The Automat on the rue de Wattignies

Rate: 24 Flag
 

au7
 
 
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. 
 
louvrepyramid
 
 

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: 

 
 
fg1 
The current location of the legendary Cinémathèque Française, designed by Frank Gehry, originally to house the American Center, 1993. 
  
 
fg2 
Detail of Gehry’s trademark dramatic curves and jutting angles above the entrance. 
 
 
 
maisondujardinage 
 
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. 
 
automatny
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.  
 
 
au1 
In yet another mix of contemporary and old, the "storefront" on the left of this pre-Haussman building 
 
 
au2 
The facade seen from across the street. 
 
 
 au5
 
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).
 
 
au6 
  
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. 
 
 
au8 
 
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.
 
aurobot 
 
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. 
 aurobotdone
 
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! 
 
vanilla coke 
 
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…. 

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The pictures from the Parc de Bercy and of the automat were all taken by me and the boyfriend last Saturday, May 14.
Alysa, you mentioned Tokyo. I was amazed that, in Japan, alcohol was available through vending machines. When the family was there, I was not old enough to drink but, if I had the money, I could have purchased the alcohol from the machine. The culture is such that those conveniences were not abused often.

- thanks for posting this. It brings back childhood memories for me.
Alysa, interesting to see the automat that you have there! The automat you show photos of operates much differently than the ones I have been to here in which the food or product was directly behind a small door that opened after the coins were deposited.

I remember very well the Horn & Hardart automats in NYC and I even had the company as a client in the late '80s, but by then they were much more into other things like mail order catalogs and other types of restaurants. There had also been an automat in the East Village operated by another group, but when I went looking for it two years ago it had already closed.
I loved this Alysa. The photossssssssssssssss..:). I am signing off now as the slowness is getting to me
MON DIEU C'EST TERRIBLE..:)
HUGGGGGGG
My dad always said that the Horn & Hardart automat in Philadelphia put him through college. He both ate and worked there. There's also an old Doris Day movie (I forget which one) that has her working in an automat. Loved this.
I miss the NY Automat! Yours looks WAY cool. And I, too, am a hufe fan of From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. If you come to New York again soon, let's go to the Metropolitan Museum!
I love this article. I too adore The Mixed Up Files and the automat in that story is still with me to this day - thirty years later. I too adore architecture appreciation and the movies ... this blog, basically, has it all. Thank you. Question: if the robot drops the cherry coke, does that mean when you open it, it fizzes up out of the bottle as if it's been shaken?
bravo ma fille!
Felitications !
I think I'd have a blast exploring Paris with you! I just hope Walmart never discovers the automat as a chain ...
I remember being young like you and claiming a part of a city for oneself and future memories. Looks like Yatoo Partoo is one of them for you. Ancient/old/modern/contemporary...well, NYC might not have ancient, but it competes with Paris in its plethora of treasures from all ages. You're a real city gal--open to all :) You remind me of me. Then and now.
Et félicitations à l'ep!
So. Freakin'. Cool. ~r
See, the thing is, I would spend a lot of money there. I mean, I really would spend a lot of money there. In a silly way.

Nicely descriptive piece. Reading it was almost as good as spending money there would have been.
Fun post! I have never been to one! Thanks for sharing~
This was such a pleasure to read, Alysa. I remember that the closest thing to your YatooPartoo Automats were the elaborate vending machines at McGill U. where one could buy a hamburger or a soup and heat it in a microwave among other choices. They also took paper money and gave back change. That was exciting then, although I never used them for meals.
♥R
Catherine – I’m so glad this post brought back some happy childhood memories. I agree, Tokyo’s range of products in vending machines was impressive. I was probably most surprised by the umbrella machines, myself. And for some reason, the hot coffee. But you are right, now that I think about it, the alcohol thing is pretty crazy, too (we didn’t sample any while there because we’re not big drinkers, but I kind of regret missing out on the opportunity…).

designanator – How cool that you got to experience NYC’s real Horn & Hardart automats! I am jealous!!! Do you have any pictures? According to my research, the one in the East Village that opened and quickly closed a few years ago was called “Bamn!” and was near St. Marks Place. I wish I could have gone to see it one of the times I was there visiting friends. I also wish someone would try again to re-open one.

Linda – Thanks – I’m glad you like the photos, and I know what you mean about the slowness. It started just as I posted this and then I had to go out so I imagine from what you wrote that it got pretty bad.

Sarah – How cool that you have a connection like that with the classic automats. I’ve read up on them and it’s amazing how many people have stories and vivid memories of automats. I really wish they’d make a comeback.

Eva – As with designanator, I am jealous that you got to really experience a bona fide NYC automat!!!! And yes, we should definitely go to the Met – it’s my favorite museum in the world, to boot! And maybe by the time I get back to NYC, someone will have tried (again) to open a modern-day automat, and we can do, like, a whole “Mixed-Up Files” theme day!

Laura – I’m so glad you liked this – I just wanted to share the joy that automat brings every time we have a chance to get a Cherry Coke from it. And to answer your very good question, the Coke is dropped into the bin and when you get it, it usually is pretty shaken up..which is why I let the boyfriend open it.

Linda – Tu es revenue! Merci, et felicitations à toi aussi !

Harry’s – It would be amazing for us to hang out here. I can imagine you’d see so many things in ways I could never think of. And I think Walmart is already so awesome, if they added an automat, it would just explode.

dirndl – I am honored and flattered that I remind you of you. And I’m sorry about the NYC statement – what I meant is not that there aren’t some old buildings and monuments left in New York, but that in general the city seems to yearn to build and rebuild, to stay modern and to erase any superfluous traces of the past. It’s a part of the spirit and dynamism of the place. But I was afraid when I made that generalization that it might be seen as untrue – it’s somewhere in the middle.

Matt – Merci, et merci!

Joan – I’m so glad you appreciate the automat.

Brassawe – I’m glad I was able to somewhat appease your urge to spend big money at the automat. My strategy is never to have too much cash on me when we go.
Susie - Thanks, and I hope that one day you, too, will be able to experience the joy of an automat.

Fusun - That still sounds like a pretty cool machine! This one does sell burgers and things to reheat, but there are no microwaves nearby - you have to bring them home and heat them there.
Only the ones in power yearn to build and rebuild...not the people who actually love and love the city. But I understood what you meant.It was founded by the Dutch, wanting to make a buck. That a heart and soul evolved I guess wasn't in the original contract :)
oops--meant to say "live in" (or have lived in) and "love" NYC. We all lament what is gone, but our hearts still quicken at the new. Well, the young hearts. Then they will lament what grows old and disappears, and so it goes...
Wanna buy some slugs?
A wonderful piece! I have always, always wanted to visit an Automate and I also loved The Mixed Up Files. Thanks for the lovely armchair journey and for bringing back memories of favorite book.
Alysa, I had forgotten until this evening that I posted a story about the NYC automats here in March of last year:

http://open.salon.com/blog/designanator/2010/03/23/foodie_new_yoirk_the_horn_hardart_automats

Lots of photos, etc. in this post to check out, including the Bamn automat we were both talking about.
Automats! I never knew what they were.
I am THAT damn parochially naive, a suburb boy,
been to the big city only under compulsion from odd fellow humans
who seem to enjoy Giganticism and anonymity and
intense insecurity and the feeling that i am about as
important as a piece of litter in the city dump.

I hate cities.

But: automats are way cool. Robots giving me
what i want. No human contact necessary. No being
charming to my waitress or waiter.
(they should outlaw waiters except for all-female
dining parties, by the way...)

My research indicates that suburbia with its fast food joints
killed the automat.
In the 1950's or so.
Now it is just a nostalgic idea,like the idea of a living loving
God.
Or democracy.
Or safe sex. Or genius.

Thank heavens for the return of the Old.
"Everything old shall be new again", said the Bible.
Like minisirts, thank heavens. And
the kind of writing Mark Twain might have done
on an adventure abroad: yours.

I can only foresee great things for the automat
in the future, as robotics gets past the point of
bouncing along your dirty carpet
or fixing your diseased heart or intestines.

About time robots got humanized!
"Hi, my name is Melissa/and(or) Mark
and I will be your waitress/waiter today...."
they will purr. Holographic technology might
add a 3d dimension to the experience.
I know my own personal idea of the perfect food-server,
and maybe if i punch in a few parameters
i will get a sweet girl from Indiana or Ohio
working her way through a college of the arts
hoping to become an actress or director
of way-cool important documentaries
realistically informing me of the human condition,
of which i am woefully ignorant.
For my robot waitress.
What great fun, Alysa! Of all the historic sights and sounds in Paris, it is quite charming for you to be intrigued by an automat! Life is so interesting.

Lezlie
Automats are great. My dad took us to one near either Times Square (I think) in the late 1960s. The food wasn't great, but I still remember it after about 45 years. Had milk and a doughnut.

I thought the I M Pei Pyramid is very cool,especially the chrome tube elevator design. I was amazed at how so many buildings with classic facades facing the street have completely modern design interiors and courtyards.

Someone youtubed the awesome elevator.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HorFckiWXw
The Paris automat looks impressive. My only experience with automats is with the sad things in the ER waiting room.

I think I mentioned in one of my posts about the wonderful coffee automats at a French truck stop - they offered every variety of coffee drink imaginable - lattes and cappuccinos, organic, ground the beans on the spot. And right across the aisle from the human-run coffee counter ... which is the one we went to. Tho I think I have a silly picture of My Travelling Companion posing with the auto-coffee thing.
The pyramid is not horrible, but it seems to clash with the older buildings.
This post was fun and interesting to read. I love it when a blog tells me more about history. Pretty sweet, and rated.
Excellent post! I hope to visit Paris someday...
Enjoyed your mention of NYC "automats". (My only experience with Paris-or France-was 3 days about 40 years ago.) By 1960 all stores in Manhattan were run by Horn & Hardart Co; Most had an entirely usual bakery on the premises. Actually they were quite labor intensive, which is probably why they went out of business; In the long ago before "Plastic", America could afford uneconomical business models. There were slots to put your coins and you could open the little window by yourself, but you were always aware of workers behind the wall putting new slices of pie in empty compartments. I got a certain psychological thrill in my teenage brain from this transparent illusion.
Wonderful photos, I don't remember ever being in a real automat, but I do remember the horrible sandwiches in those vending machines at school. You make this a great adventure. My niece is in Paris this week, I will have to text her to check one out.
rated with love
Thanks for your comments, everyone, and sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. It’s been a very busy weekend. And not in a fun way….

dirndl – So well-put. Exactly – I know so many New Yorkers wish older parts of their city would stay around. And certainly that they have a respect for history. I think of all cultures and people I am really a New Yorker at heart, and so I know that the desire to tear things down isn’t inherent – it’s all about money and power, as you say. It’s been especially interesting as I researched automats and read some of the comments here, to see how even the automats are missed. I hope they’ll come back to New York one day.

Larry – No thank you, sir. But if you have any chocolates, those I would be interested in!

500 words – I’m so glad you enjoyed this – and glad I could bring thoughts of that amazing book to you!

designantor – Yesss!!!! I am going to check that out as soon as I finish posting these replies!!!

James – City life definitely isn’t for everyone. I feel like it’s one of the great debates of modern life, since so many people seem to feel strongly about one side or another. I’m the opposite of you – though I can appreciate a more rural setting, and though I grew up in a then-small Georgia suburb near farms, I am just absolutely not mentally or even physically equipped to live anywhere but an urban setting. Okay, maybe on my own private yacht or a beachfront property –but the beach would have to be tied to somewhere with lots of things to do and an easy access to a major metropolis. Do you know the French medieval poet François Villon? He is known as one of the first modern-era poets to champion city life over country life. He also had quite a life. But then again, that’s more to do with his criminal tendencies than his love of cities…..

Lezlie – Thanks. I just find myself continually delighted when we pass it. I love neat little elements of the everyday that recall a different life and time. I collect almanacs from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s for just that reason – there is so much in each one that’s vanished today but you can find traces.

another steve s – How awesome that you got to eat an automat! Though most people seem to remember the food being really good! The pyramid is indeed cool, inside and out. I’m glad people have thought to film it. I wish more had filmed the old automats, though I am going to check out some youtube videos of them later on today.

Myriad – I remember you writing about those coffee machines – you were impressed. I didn’t make the connection, but you’re right, that could indeed qualify as another form of automat in the present-day. That makes me very happy.

Noirville – Interesting you brought that up. I think it’s much more impressive and harmonious when you’re there in front of it. The size and angle at which you’re viewing it and the buildings around it are different, and the colors of the stone facades of the Louvre are more vivid, and ever-changing, with light and shadow. Picutres really don’t do it justice. I realized that when I was trying to find an image to illustrate that part of the post.

Reborn? – Thank you so much. I like to share things I find interesting and I’m glad you thought this was worth your while. Automats of any kind rule!

Frank – Thanks! I hope you’ll get here one day – and I hope you’ll check out an automat if you have time during your visit!

87king – Love your description of your own automat experience, and I’m so jealous you got to experience one! While researching automats, I learned about the reason for their decline and it’s so disheartening that using real, natural ingredients and actual chefs who have to prepare wholesome meals in a very manual way, is enough to make a place shut down. I like fast food as much as the next (though my system can’t process McDonald’s), but I so wish we could have a world where fast food and automat food could live together in harmony….

RP – Thanks! I don’t think from what I’ve read and heard that the sandwiches at the automat were bad, but I know what you mean about those yucky vending machine sandwiches around today. I hope your niece has a wonderful visit and that if she can, she gets to check out an automat!
How interesting. I saw an ice cream machine like that at the Disneyland Hotel. You put your money in and a big sucker went over your selection and pulled it up, carried it over and dropped it in the slot.

Of course the most intersting vending machine I saw in Paris was one that sold fresh shirts, complete with matching ties, in the Louvre Metro station.
This is such a great story. I love your pictures. -R-
ocular - Whoa - that Disney ice cream machine really sounds cool! Disney truly is the happiest place on earth! As for the Louvre machine - I have never seen that! And I go there a lot! How could I have missed it?! I'm going to definitely have to search for it the next time I go!!! Did you take any pictures of it when you were in Paris?

Christine - Thanks so much! I just wanted to share my love of the automat! And it's been so fun reading everyone's automat stories here, too!
I've read about fancy automats in some hotels where you can buy a car or even a condo. I'm ordering an ice cold cherry coke in my mind.
My,the size of the machine and the selection it allows customers! I'd love to have something like that near the office . . .
Great essay!
I went to the New York automat. The food was not made in a factory-- you could see cooks on the other side of the little compartments. I ate a custard pie there. It was good. You had to get change-- lots of dimes and nickels. That's what put them out of business-- inflation. There was no way they could retool all those old machines, to take paper. They are probably a lot of them still around, in a warehouse somewhere. They would make cool little cabinets.