I live in La Courneuve, at one end of line 7 of the Paris Métro. I spend a lot of time riding on that line, looking at its long list of stations during my daily trips back and forth to Paris. Scanning that list recently, I noticed what seemed to be some strange homage to the Cold War: the end of World War II … the White House … and the Kremlin.
The official name of the La Courneuve station is La Courneuve—8 mai 1945. The date refers to V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day: the end of the Second World War in Europe, when Germany’s act of military surrender was officially ratified in Berlin. While we don’t celebrate May 8 in the United States, it’s celebrated widely in Europe as a public holiday. Nothing really noteworthy in having a station named in honor of the end of the war, right? Towards the other end of line 7, however, two more stations drew my attention: Maison Blanche and Le Kremlin-Bicêtre. That got me thinking. “Maison Blanche” means “White House” and “Kremlin” … well, “Kremlin” means “Kremlin.” (I’ll admit, I had no idea what “Bicêtre” meant.) “How interesting!” I thought. At one end of line 7 we’ve got the end of World War II and at the other end, we’ve got the White House and the Kremlin! Hmm …
As it turns out, my nascent Cold War theory fell flat as soon as I started researching. Maison Blanche has nothing at all to do with the White House in Washington, in fact. The station, which opened in 1930 on line 10 and was integrated into line 7 in 1932, is actually named after the neighborhood in the 13th arrondissement where it is located. The neighborhood apparently gets its name from a local hotel (and not a very good one if you trust the online reviews) called La Maison Blanche. Sigh. Oh well. No historical reference to the Roosevelt White House, apparently—not even the Hoover one, it seems.
So, if Maison Blanche has nothing to do with the White House, how come there’s a station just down the line named after the Kremlin? “Oh, these anti-American, pro-Soviet French!” Well, not quite. Le Kremlin-Bicêtre, which opened in 1982 on the Villejuif branch of line 7, is actually named after the commune (please read “town” before we slip back down that Soviet slope) in the southern Paris suburbs where it is located. The commune’s name does have roots in (pre-Soviet) Russia, but also in England of all places. At the end of the 13th Century, John of Pontoise, the Bishop of Winchester, built a manor house in the rolling countryside south of Paris named after his English bishopric. With the passage of time, a tiny village sprung up around the estate, and the local francophone population corrupted the manor’s English name into “Vinchestre,” then into “Bichestre,” and finally into “Bicêtre.” Centuries later, after the English king no longer had territorial claims on the area and English Bishops no longer kept summer homes on the outskirts of Paris, the hospital of Bicêtre was constructed on the ruins of the old estate. The hospital was successively used as orphanage, a prison, a lunatic asylum, and a general hospital. Its most notorious guest was the Marquis de Sade from 1801 to 1803.
More importantly for our story, however, is that the hospital became a major reception center for soldiers evacuated from the East during Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign of 1812-13. A nearby village tavern frequented by veterans was renamed “Au Sargent du Kremlin” (“The Sergeant of the Kremlin”) in honor of the Grande Armée‘s occupation of Moscow in 1812. By 1832, “Kremlin” had become the recognized name for the neighborhood around the hospital and, in 1896, the new commune of Kremlin-Bicêtre was officially created by separating it from the larger commune of Gentilly in which it was located.
So there’s how my Cold War theory of line 7 quickly devolved into three disjointed stories about the surrender of Nazi Germany, an old hotel on the south side of Paris, and an English bishop’s manor-turned-military-hospital and the nearby tavern where veterans lifted a glass to their fallen comrades. It’s not as exciting as Tom Clancy, of course, but hopefully you enjoyed it.
© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved